Should Chimps Have the Rights of People?

LAW alum says they deserve legal personhood

Steven Wise, animal rights, legal personhood chimpanzee, chimpanzee, captivity, zoo, research animals

Wrongly imprisoned? Attorney Steven Wise (LAW’76) wants courts to grant legal personhood to captive chimpanzees to free them. Photo by Kevin McCoy

July 23, 2013
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When animal researchers decry the use of chimpanzees for medical research, even those least attentive to animal welfare might perk up. In June the National Institutes of Health announced an end to funding for biomedical research on chimps, adding that it would safely retire most of its lab-held specimens. The decision was partly pragmatic—scientists said the animals are not essential to most research—but it also reflected a humanitarian concern, expressed by the NIH director: “Chimpanzees are special creatures,” with “similarities to ourselves that are quite breathtaking.”

The NIH decision is nothing compared to what Steven Wise has in mind. Wise (LAW’76) has been appalled by humans’ treatment of animals for decades. He plans to file a habeas corpus suit this fall against an as-yet-unidentified party on behalf of a captive chimpanzee, arguing that the ape should be released on grounds that it deserves legal personhood.

Whatever the legal outcome for Chimp Doe, the Boston Globe, reporting recently on Wise’s crusade, says his argument is not that radical, noting that corporations and ships have received personhood status for the purpose of suits over the centuries. (Early American courts deemed ships people to expedite settlement of shipping accidents in which the vessel’s owner was absentee, the Globe said.) Farm animals, represented by lawyers, were tried (and occasionally acquitted) before medieval courts for killing people or destroying crops, the paper reported. But in the modern United States, the law considers them property, a designation Wise challenged for some animals in his books Rattling the Cage and Drawing the Line.

Steven Wise, President, Nonhuman Rights Project, animal rights lawsuit, legal personhood
Photo courtesy of Steven Wise

The upcoming suit will mark the first nonhuman client for the Florida-based Nonhuman Rights Project, of which Wise (right) is president. It builds on public debate over animal treatment in both research labs and industrial food farms, fed by graphic undercover videos and media reports. (Even The American Conservative magazine, cofounded by Pat Buchanan, savaged food production’s animal practices in a 2005 article by a former George W. Bush speechwriter.)

Wise has taught animal rights courses at several law schools. He discussed his coming litigation with BU Today.

BU Today: This suit will involve a chimpanzee. Based on the latest animal cognition science, which other species merit legal personhood?

Wise: There are a million species of animals. I have studied fewer than a dozen. Based on my research and discussions with scientists, it appears likely that at least some great apes, cetaceans, and elephants possess cognitive abilities that the Nonhuman Rights Project believes are sufficient for legal personhood. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list.

What do you say to those who worry that legal personhood for some animals might curb lifesaving medical research? Would it be legally tenable to confer some rights to animals while still permitting them to be used in such research?

Whether medical research is lifesaving is not the criterion for determining whether an entity should be recognized as a legal person, with such fundamental legal rights as bodily liberty and bodily integrity, or whether she should be used as the subject of biomedical research. If it were, we would use human beings in biomedical research against their will. Rather, we look at the nature of the subject and whether she has the legal right not to be used.

Any being eligible for legal personhood and such fundamental legal rights as bodily liberty and bodily integrity may not be used in ways that disrespect their rights. A good rule of thumb is that a nonhuman animal possessed of fundamental legal rights may be used in biomedical research in the same way in which a human child may be used, with similar safeguards. Chimpanzees are so extraordinarily autonomous and intelligent that they should not be used in biomedical research or otherwise imprisoned, used, or exploited, except as would a human child. The 2011 Institute of Medicine report and the 2013 actions of the National Institutes of Health, halting the funding of biomedical research on chimpanzees and sending more than 80 percent of them to sanctuaries, are a clear signal that their moral and legal statuses are rapidly changing.

If personhood required releasing animals from captivity, might that expose some species to extinction or near-extinction, as one zoo spokesman told the Boston Globe?

Legal personhood and fundamental legal rights for any animal require that we respect their individual legal rights and act solely in their interests, and not in ours. What that requires will depend upon individual circumstances.

If I recall your books correctly, states exempt animal husbandry from their animal cruelty laws. If your suit prevails, would factory farming become illegal?

No. Our lawsuits have nothing to do with factory farming or with anticruelty laws.

Haven’t courts rejected previous efforts to remove animals from the realm of property? If your suit fails, would there be alternative ways to protect them from mistreatment?

To my knowledge, our upcoming fall lawsuit will be the first in history to demand that a nonhuman animal be declared a legal person with a legal right. We do not plan to file one lawsuit. This upcoming lawsuit will be the first salvo of an open-ended, complex strategic litigation campaign in which we will file as many lawsuits as we can financially support throughout the United States.

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Should Chimps Have the Rights of People?

  • Rich Barlow

    Senior Writer

    Rich Barlow

    Rich Barlow is a senior writer at BU Today and Bostonia magazine. Perhaps the only native of Trenton, N.J., who will volunteer his birthplace without police interrogation, he graduated from Dartmouth College, spent 20 years as a small-town newspaper reporter, and is a former Boston Globe religion columnist, book reviewer, and occasional op-ed contributor. Profile

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There are 23 comments on Should Chimps Have the Rights of People?

  1. The simple answer is no. As similar as chimps may be, they are not humans and we should not pretend that they are.

    That said, there are a group of humans that are discriminated against based solely on their age. In fact they have less rights than a dog let alone a chimp so much so that the willful taking of their lives is considered a right.

    How appalling is it and what does it say of our society where we fight and argue for personhood rights of nonhuman animals but declare that our very own children do not merit the very same recognition simply based on age?

    1. Nobody is pretending that chimpanzees are humans. (Although they are 98.6% human, and there is genetic variation between humans so even humans are only 99.999whatever% human. But I digress.) The specific issue posed by the Nonhuman Rights Project is whether the law should recognize a chimpanzee’s fundamental legal right to bodily liberty and integrity. You would do well to address the argument with a substantive moral critique rather than irrelevant semantics like the use of the terms human, person, right-bearing entity, etc.

      Fetal rights can be easily distinguished from animal rights based on the cognitive capacities of the two respective entities. Though there is some overlap as well, especially to the extent that a being should have a legally recognized interest over its future based on its future mental capacities. Though we end up right where we started this paragraph if the right to future liberty doesn’t vest until the individual reaches some mental threshold. Independently of this whole discussion of what rights an entity is owed, I would further distinguish fetal and animal rights due to the peculiar fact that a fetus interferes on some level with the bodily integrity of another right-bearing entity, i.e. the woman.

    2. Chimps should have rights as well as dogs, cats & horses. They should NOT be injected with diseases just so we can find cures. Half of the things we get even say “not for use on animals” therefore why test them on animals in the FIRST PLACE? You sound like an idiot sir.
      Even the drugs that they test on animals can’t help them. With Chimpanzees, the chief purpose of using them is for SIV(Simian Immunodeficiency Virus). Knowing how terrible it is for a person to have this disease, why would one inject a simian version in a chimpanzee just because the animal isn’t aware of the infection’s horror?

      It is just a cheaper way to see how chemicals & diseases destroy the body rather than copensating for it. Humans & Animals process things differently a cure for animals wouldn’t equate with an exact cure for a human version of an infection. It would be more accurate and ethical to pay human beings for these test. Exposing animals to radiation for 72 hours just to see the affects on living cells isn’t neccessary.

  2. By definition, only ‘persons’ can have ‘personhood,’ and non-human primates clearly are not people, i.e. human. Nevertheless, I think this is a very relevant question, and I am glad to see BU Today addressing the issue of animal welfare. And I very much agree with the statements on animal experimentation. Thank you.

    1. The word “person” comes originally from “persona”, a mask worn by a character in a play. The root idea of a “person” is someone who has a role in the play of life, who is not just an extra or stage furniture — i.e., someone who counts. So, no, there is no intrinsic justification for restricting personhood to human beings.

  3. Rejecting this idea because chimps are not “human” is just evidence that you have not read the article. Under the law, you don’t have to be a human…you don’t even have to be organic/alive. “…corporations and ships have received personhood status for the purpose of suits over the centuries.” With that in mind, I think that the treatment of animals deserves more attention in our society today.

    “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” – Ghandi

    1. I can give my toaster personhood if I like, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a misuse of language. Do we think that corporations should have personhood status? I think most people find that designation ridiculous.

      1. If corporations didn’t have personhood status then they couldn’t be held liable for human rights violations, civil rights violations, debts owed, etc. The idea of corporate personhood isn’t offensive at all. The real issue is what rights are owed to what legal persons. The idea of First Amendment rights for a corporations is a bit silly, as would the right of a chimpanzee to run for Congress. However, the right of a chimpanzee over its basic bodily integrity is completely appropriate considering that their mental state is approximately that of a young three-to-four year old child.

  4. Not a very legal argument is it? But fortunately these things are not decided by you. As humans, we know what it is to suffer, we know what it is to feel pain, fear, anguish, terror…. we know what it is and what it means to be confined and kept against our will. These things make us human. Non-human animals are also capable of experiencing these same things, thus the essential elements of what makes us human (our emotions, our desire for freedom and liberty, our desire to live a life free from pain) are not exclusive to us. Therefore, a non-human animal is worthy of the same moral consideration as human animals.

  5. I will be happy to introduce some places in the world, where ‘humans’ still need these sort of helps, to prof. Wise, if he still had some extra time after working on Chimps.

  6. Really? We can’t even get our own basic human rights in check as a species, yet we are going to blanket in other species and consider then human? Apply this mentality elsewhere, to other species, etc and you will see this is completely foolish. You’re either human or your not. I’m done with America.

  7. Couldnt he established a trust for the chimp which could then buy or start a corporation. Since corporations are people due to Citizen’s United ruling that would mean that chimps are people?

  8. The issue of whether chimps have “legal rights” is frivolous. There is NO doubt that no court will issue a writ of habeas corpus for a chimp. Indeed, a lawyer who brings such a frivolous suit should be required to pay all court costs and related expenses.

    Just a chimps have no “rights” they also no have no duties or obligations to others (as corporations do). Chimps cannot be charged with crimes or sued for negligence because. I assume the animal “rights” advocates would agree with this. Chimps are not rights or duty bearing beings.

    This is totally unrelated to the issue of how chimps should be treated by humans who do have ethical as well as legal obligations. Humans even have moral obligations to non-rights bearing entities. Humans can have the obligations not to chop down giant red wood trees or destroy artistic masterpieces. Human who do this deserve the label of being “bad” or immoral. This is not because inanimate objects like trees and oil paintings have “rights” but because humans have obligations to make the world a good place in which to live, and how we treat chimps or art works or red wood trees evidences whether a person and the communities in which they live moral.

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