The Nonhuman Rights Project: An Interview with Steven Wise

This project is working to achieve legal rights for members of other species

Posted Dec 16, 2016

Nonhuman animals are not "things": A move to make them "persons"

Nonhuman animals (animals) are considered to be mere property in most legal systems in the world. While things are slowly getting better for some animals in terms of people actually being punished for harming and killing them, there still is a good deal of work to be done. One organization that has been working tirelessly for many years to gain legal rights for individuals of other species is The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), led by attorney Steven Wise. On their website, which is a goldmine of information about their projects and the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals, we read:

The Nonhuman Rights Project is the only civil rights organization in the United States working to achieve actual LEGAL rights for members of species other than our own.

Our mission is to change the legal status of appropriate nonhuman animals from mere “things,” which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to “persons,” who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty. Our first cases were filed in 2013 on behalf of captive chimpanzees; we plan to continue to file as many lawsuits as we have funds available.

There also is extremely valuable information about what they do and why they do on a page called "About the Project." I suggest that you take the time to explore all of the links on their web site. I've followed the NhRP for many years, and learned a lot from reading Mr. Wise's two books called Rattling The Cage: Toward Legal Rights For Animals and Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights. 

With permission of the NhRP
Source: With permission of the NhRP

There also is a recent highly acclaimed documentary about the NhRP's work called "Unlocking the Cage." The description for this landmark film reads:

Unlocking the Cage follows animal rights lawyer Steven Wise in his unprecedented challenge to break down the legal wall that separates animals from humans. After thirty years of struggling with ineffective animal welfare laws, Steve and his legal team, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), are making history by filing the first lawsuits that seek to transform an animal from a thing with no rights to a person with legal protections.

Supported by affidavits from primatologists around the world, Steve maintains that, based on scientific evidence, cognitively complex animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins, and elephants have the capacity for limited personhood rights (such as bodily liberty) that would protect them from physical abuse.  Using writs of habeas corpus (historically used to free humans from unlawful imprisonment), Wise argues on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York State.

Unlocking the Cage captures a monumental shift in our culture, as the public and judicial system show increasing receptiveness to Steve’s impassioned arguments. It is an intimate look at a lawsuit that could forever transform our legal system, and one man’s lifelong quest to protect “nonhuman” animals.

An interview with Steven Wise

Despite his incredibly hectic schedule, I was most fortunate to be able to interview Mr. Wise. 

How did you first get involved in working for nonhuman rights?

After working for five years with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, I concluded that there was a powerful structural bias in the law against protecting even the most fundamental interests of nonhuman animals.  Every one of them had always been considered a legal thing incapable of possessing any legal rights. I decided this had to change and that it would take thirty years to prepare for it. It took a mere twenty-eight.

Can you please tell us about the recent film Unlocking the Cage?

For almost four years, the extraordinary film team of Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker (the only documentary film maker to win an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement), had complete access to every one of us in the Nonhuman Rights Project and to everything we did, in court and out. As some reviews noted, they turned the NhRP's highly complex legal attempts to use the writ of habeas corpus in New York State to attain legal personhood for chimpanzees, our first clients, into a "legal thriller."  People leave the theater understanding what the problem facing nonhuman animals is, how the NhRP is determined to fix it, and what obstacles we face.

How has it been received by colleagues, academics, and broader audiences?

We were all nervous when the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016. To our delight, as the credits rolled, almost six hundred people rose and gave it a resounding standing ovation. We have seen this happen again and again, all over the world.  We received terrific reviews in the "New York Times" and the "Los Angeles Times" and in many other publications. And we have a 79% critics rating on "Rotten Tomatoes." Not bad.

Can you please tell us about your goals and successes to date?

The goal of the Nonhuman Rights Project is to break through the legal wall that has prevented all nonhuman animals from attaining legal rights for centuries. Once we have broken through we intend to litigate which nonhuman animals should have what legal rights, based on what science tells us about each species. We are soon to file suits on behalf of elephants and orcas in states other than New York. From the outset we encountered numerous legal obstacles that we have been determined to surmount, one by one. We are slowly succeeding. We are also working with legal groups in ten countries on three continents to assist them in gaining legal rights for nonhuman animals in their jurisdictions. In November a court in Argentina found a chimpanzee named Cecilia to be a "nonhuman animal person" and ordered her transferred to a sanctuary in Brazil pursuant to a writ of habeas corpus.  The important portion of the judge's decision could have been taken straight from our legal briefs and scientific affidavits. 

 What are the major stumbling blocks to achieving your goals?

The major stumbling block is that it has never been done before. That is changing. 

What keeps you going?

We know our legal arguments are powerful, our scientific affidavits clear and sound, and our position on the right side of history and morality.

What are your plans for the future -- how and why is the Nonhuman Rights Project expanding?

We are planning more lawsuits on behalf of more species of nonhuman animals in more states. We are moving more deeply into legislation and public education that will support those lawsuits. Within the last two months we have hired a Campaigns Director, a Public Policy and Governmental Affairs Director, a Communications Director, and a Development Director.

Is there anything more you would like to share with readers?

We are on the cusp of changing the legal relationship between many nonhuman animals and humans.  It's time to push harder, as hard as we can. And keep pushing. And keep pushing.

The NhRP adds to my basket of hope

In a previous post called "My Basket of Hope I: BeaRtrice, Oscar, and Asian Moon Bears" I wrote about how the plight and recovery of bile bears in China contribute to my "basket of hope" for future generations. So, too, does seminal and forward-looking work of the Nonhuman Rights Project.

Many thanks, Steve, for taking the time to answer these questions and for all you and your organization do for other animals. I wish you the best of luck. Nonhuman animals surely are not unfeeling "things," and must be respected for who they are, intelligent (sapient) and deeply emotions beings (sentient). You all give me hope for the future. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017.

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