This month marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta – the basis for many of the liberties we enjoy today. In spite of terrific advances that have been made for many humans around the world (and work that still needs to be done), nonhuman animals still have no legal rights from which to start. In the eyes of the law – in almost every corner of the world – nonhuman animals are still considered “something,” not “someone.”
As the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) points out, while the Supreme Court has ruled that even corporations are entitled to certain legal rights, chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, whales, and many other animals have no more rights than a pair of tennis shoes.
Steven Wise is the founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project. His mission? To fundamentally change the status quo by establishing legal rights for nonhuman animals. Steve is the lead strategist and litigator in court cases that are making history as I write – a case Steve brilliantly lays out in his recent TED talk.
On a purely personal note, over the past few years, Steve has become a friend. Steve is exactly what you might imagine – passionate, intelligent, inquisitive, kind, and humble. He is also a committed husband, father, and son. And he still makes time to write inspiring books and teach and mentor rising lawyers.
Recently I interviewed Steve about the Nonhuman Rights Project and the effort he is leading to change the plight of nonhuman animals around the world.
HF: Tell me about what inspired the creation of the Nonhuman Rights Project.
SW: After litigating in the interests of nonhuman animals for years, I concluded that it was impossible adequately to protect their fundamental interests in a legal system that characterized all nonhuman animals as legal “things” that lacked any capacity for legal rights. Over many years I researched, theorized, and wrote about how at least some nonhuman animals might become legal “persons” with the capacity for one or more legal rights. When the time came to implement these theories, I knew the work involved in winning the first cases would be well beyond my ability; it was going to take a village, and for a long time. That is when I created the Nonhuman Rights Project.
HF: You are interested in many social justice issues, including human rights. Why did you choose to focus the majority of your career on establishing legal rights for nonhuman animals?
SW: All nonhuman animals everywhere are treated as legal “things” that lack the capacity for any legal rights. Accordingly they are enslaved, abused, exploited, tormented, and killed in staggering numbers. I thought no entities on earth required competent legal representation more than they. And it would have to begin with establishing legal personhood for any nonhuman animal. If not I, who?
HF: Tell me about some of the animals the Nonhuman Rights Project has brought lawsuits on behalf of.
SW: The Nonhuman Rights Project has sought habeas corpus relief on behalf of four chimpanzees detained in the state of New York. Hercules and Leo are two 8 or 9 years old chimpanzees who have been detained at Stony Brook University for the last five years and are being used in non-medical, non-health-related locomotion experiments by professors from the Anatomy Department. Tommy is a chimpanzee in his late twenties who is being detained alone on a used trailer lot in a rural Central New York town. Kiko is also in his late twenties and he, too, is being detained alone in a cement storefront in Niagara Falls.
HF: The latest Pew and Gallup Polls show an increase in the percentage of people who believe nonhuman animals deserve protections similar to at least some of the legal protections humans enjoy. What do you think is most responsible for the shift in the public’s beliefs and attitudes about nonhuman animals?
SW: Scientists are learning more every day about how complex and often humanlike are the minds of many species of nonhuman animals, and the media often runs stories about these advances and about how badly we humans treat them. Perhaps that has begun to cause people to reconsider our relationships with many nonhuman animals.
HF: Despite changes in attitudes about nonhuman animals, they are still subject to tremendous cruelty. How do you stay hopeful and motivated about the future for nonhuman animals?
SW: I read a lot of history. I understand how long these sorts of changes can take but also how quickly they can accelerate once they begin to take hold. The arguments that the Nonhuman Rights Project makes are well within the mainstream of law and are compelling. They can only be turned back arbitrarily. Arbitrary judicial decisions are unstable and do not last long. It just takes careful, thoughtful, thorough, and persistent lawyering. That is what the Nonhuman Rights Project does.
HF: Do you believe you will see at least some legal rights for nonhuman animals in your lifetime? If so, what do you think this will look like?
SW: I think that the first breakthrough is nearly upon us. The first rights are likely to protect the most fundamental interests of some cognitively complex nonhuman animals who most closely resemble human beings.
To learn more about the Nonhuman Rights Project and support their work, go to https://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org.