2013: The Year for Non-Human Rights—Maybe for Chimps


Spencer Lo

Near the end of 2012, Popular Science published an article predicting the top 15 science and technology news stories of this year, with many interesting items such as: “Black Hole Chows Down,” “Supercomputer Crunches Climate,” and “New Comet Blazes by Earth.” One prediction in particular, however, may come as a surprise to readers, and will undoubtedly be welcome news and an inspiration to animal advocates everywhere. I am referring to the seventh “news byte” on the list, which reads:

Animals Sue For Rights

Certain animals—such as dolphins, chimpanzees, elephants, and parrots—show capabilities thought uniquely human, including language-like communication, complex problem solving, and seeming self-awareness. By the end of 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project plans to file suits on the behalf of select animals to procure freedoms (like protection from captivity) previously granted only to humans. 

The end of 2013 is getting closer (more than halfway there), and as detailed in this piece in The Boston Globe, The Nonhuman Rights Project recently announced its plans to file suit on behalf of a captive chimpanzee, preparing to argue before a state court judge that at least one non-human animal ought to be recognized as a legal person—and therefore entitled to liberty from his or her dire living situation. The suit, if successful, will break through the legal wall which has long separated humans from other species: specifically the wall which puts humans on one side, in the category of “person,” and all non-human animals on the other, in the category of “thing” or “property.”  Unless that barrier is breached, and so long as nonhuman animals legally remain things or property, no amount of legislative or legal advances in animal welfare will likely accord them basic, fundamental protections; until then, “animal rights” will remain a contradiction in terms.

Attorney Steven Wise, President of the NhRP, has explained the concept of “legal personhood” as the capacity to possess at least one legal right, and that capacity is foundationally important: it is only after gaining legal personhood can courts then focus on the separate question of what rights non-human animals ought to legally possess—such as the right of liberty and bodily integrity. Working through the common law, a main legal strategy will be to use the common law writ of habeas corpus to secure the plaintiff chimpanzee’s freedom, similar to the way the writ was famously used in 1772 to secure freedom for the slave James Somerset. As one can imagine, the preparation involved has been extraordinarily complex, requiring a diverse team of volunteers from various professional backgrounds to tackle, for several years, numerous, intricate issues—both legal and factual. The upcoming lawsuit, win or lose, will only be the first of many in “a long-term, strategic, open-ended campaign.”

Why a chimp as the first non-human plaintiff? (His or her identity remains undisclosed.) One reason is that, given their cognitive and emotional complexity, chimpanzees rank very high on Wise’s “practical autonomy” scale, which consists of three traits that, if possessed, ought to be sufficient—though not necessary—for entitlement to personhood and basic rights. They are whether a being: “1. can desire; 2. can intentionally try to fulfill her desire; and 3. possess a sense of self-sufficiency to allow her to understand, even dimly, that it is she who wants something and it is she who is trying to get it.” The more cognitively advanced a nonhuman animal is, similar to humans, the more likely she or he will possess a great deal of practical autonomy, and thus from a litigation standpoint, chimpanzees—along with the other great apes, elephants and cetaceans—offer the best shot at winning in court.

No doubt, there is much resistance to the goals of the NhRP. As the Boston Globe article notes, among the most formidable barriers to animal personhood “is the longstanding belief in human uniqueness, one reflected in major religious traditions and the country’s founding documents. It is humans, after all, who are ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ Even without invoking God, much of society assumes that humans should have a unique legal status among living creatures.” But whatever the outcome of the upcoming lawsuit, this longstanding belief—i.e., prejudice—will soon be vigorously challenged and exposed, over and over, in a court of law, likely marking a game-changing turning point in the broader fight for the rights of non-human animals.

5 Responses

  1. This I great news. Tears of joy and possibility.

  2. Thanks for this overview/update, Spencer. I’ve been following the Nonhuman Rights Project fairly closely for the past year or so, and am heartened that the time is drawing nigh to take on its first court challenge. Bless Steve and all the NhRP legal eagles and staff members and volunteers who are taking this important step in saving humanity from its own demise by speciesist hubris.

  3. This is outstanding news. The timing is right to make such leaps in animal welfare legislation. I will be following this case closely.

  4. Great news! Thanks for posting. I think Carl Sagan said it best when he said “How smart does a chimp have to be before killing him constitutes murder?”

  5. […] 2013: The year of non-human rights–maybe for chimps, at Animal Blawg  […]

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