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Inside the Manhattan courthouse of New York’s Appellate Division, First Judicial Department, five robed appeals judges peer down from the high, intricately carved bench at attorney Steven Wise, who rises on behalf of his clients. Their supporters are here too, scores of them, watching from the audience section, and wearing, in one case, a black “Vegan Power” sweatshirt.

Wise (LAW’76) himself, salty haired and bespectacled, looks the part of a public defender, in a sober black suit. A founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), he’s representing Tommy and Kiko—chimpanzees owned by private individuals in New York. Wise has spent the last 30 years fighting for chimps—arguing in courts and in books and before law school classes that laws decreeing higher animals to be things rather than autonomous beings with certain rights are inhumane relics of earlier times.

Continue reading about the Nonhuman Rights Project on Bostonia

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

11 Comments on Nonhuman Rights

  • Andrew Wolfe on 10.26.2017 at 11:53 am

    Hard to imagine more cynical and corrupt an idea than to claim to represent plaintiffs who never sought him, to seek rights he invented for them, to pursue personal fame and monetary damages that barely benefit such plaintiffs, by means of ex post facto application of laws never enacted by legislatures. I’m sorry, Prof Wise, but humans are different. If chimpanzees can’t pass a bar exam the way humans do, they don’t get human rights the way humans do.

    • M on 10.26.2017 at 5:58 pm

      Are you suggesting, then, that rights should be based upon intellectual ability? Why should children have rights, by your logic, if they couldn’t pass a bar exam the way an adult human could?

      If we can accept variations in ability -within- a species as morally irrelevant, why is intellectual ability suddenly morally relevant -across- species lines?

      • Andrew Wolfe on 10.27.2017 at 11:38 am

        I’m saying two things: first, as a species we have no obligation to any other species. We have the duty to safeguard the rights of each member of our species, regardless of ability, except when an individual’s misuse of those rights necessitates restricting them. We don’t owe that to chimpanzees and if they had the capacity, they probably wouldn’t grant it to us. Second, insofar as a species other than ours, taken as a whole rather than just as individuals, completely lacks the communication (intellectual) ability to exercise legal rights in the least, there is no reason to entertain the notion of rights for them. Rather, to advocate such rights “on their behalf” is a profoundly dishonest and cynical attempt not to empower members of any other species such as chimpanzees, but is instead a tool for devaluing humanity and the species solidarity we owe preferentially to other humans over other animals; it moreover vacates the very notion of civil rights by ascribing them to those who can’t exercise them on their own behalf.

        • Gabriella Ketema on 10.27.2017 at 11:58 am

          I don’t agree with your use of the word cynical. And I find your argument on human rights to be invalid because we as a species absolutely do not look out for anyone other than ourselves and the people who look like us. Just because we don’t owe anyone anything doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. If you are passionate about other living creatures you have the right to vouch for them. Are you afraid of a chimpanzee having more legal rights than you? He won’t be making any executive decisions on our species’ behalf anytime soon so I think the point you’re trying to make is a moot one.

          • Andrew Wolfe on 10.27.2017 at 4:08 pm

            It’s cynical because not only are we not morally obliged, every last single chimpanzee is incapable of exercising any rights. We can vouch for animals with animal mistreatment laws and that’s enough. And I’m not afraid of a chimp having more legal rights; I’m afraid of cynical human lawyers claiming custodianship of chimps and “on their behalf” forcing legal decisions that do affect my rights. It’s a cynical disregard of law and humanity that stands to provide the legal profession with a lot of money and political power “for the sake of the chimps.”

    • Thank you! on 10.27.2017 at 12:53 am

      Thank you Mr. Wolfe (or Prof. Wolfe) for often having the courage to speak to sound thought against political correctness. I have admired your notes on these pages, your research, and perhaps most highly, your integrity. You are needed, please do not give up. (I have much less courage than you, or rather none at all, as being unpopular as I am affects me deeply.)

    • Lori Sirianni on 10.27.2017 at 1:27 am

      Andrew Wolfe, by your comment here it leads me to assume you’re one of those who are holding nonhuman animals captive against their will to exploit them for profit. Am I correct in that assumption? Would you perchance be Andrew Wolfe, Ph.D. of the Andrew Wolfe Laboratory at Johns Hopkins, tinkering away at nature creating knock-out mice for vivisection experiments? If so, the old adage “follow the money” certainly applies once again here. How vivisectionists get immense public funding with our tax dollars to torture nonhuman animals, to secure more grants from the NIH, and to gain fame by publish studies in prestigious medical journals. Where are the actual cures for diseases? If not, apologies for my assumption and mistaken identity… but it seems odd for someone with an identical name to a vivisectionist to be writing vitriol against Professor Steven Wise under this article.

      That said, the legal work and mission of the Nonhuman Rights Project is the polar opposite of a “cynical and corrupt” idea. It’s a noble and hopeful continuation of the “arc of the moral universe” and justice that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of. With all the advancements in the science of nonhuman cognition and social and behavioral science made regarding nonhumans such as great apes, elephants and cetacea the past half-century, it is ignoble of us to continue incarcerating these intelligent, autonomous beings against their will for human profit, curiosity, and experimentation.

      Social justice movements, from the hard-fought battles for civil rights, voting rights and equality for African Americans, women, LGBTQ and others, have deep roots in the universal need of all peoples to secure and enjoy the same rights. If you devote any serious time to a) learning about the nonhuman animals I’ve referred to and b) reading the published briefs and work of the NhRP, you’ll realize that common law is indeed the proper and fitting legal course for them to pursue nonhuman rights for these beings. Not all law has been created by legislatures – that is very much the history of judicial common law rulings.

      You’re correct that humans are different. By a fraction of our DNA – and I’d add that you, I and every other human being on earth are also different from one another by fractions, or SNPs, single nucleotide polymorphisms, in our DNA. Your reasoning sounds more like the simplistic, unscientific kind of warped logic used by men who believe they’re inherently superior to women, or Caucasians who believe they’re inherently superior to African Americans or Latinos.

      Perhaps chimpanzees can’t pass a bar exam; but neither could I or most Americans. Could you? Neither can a toddler or comatose person, but they all have human rights. Should the inability to pass a bar exam mean we have no legal rights?

      We could equally state that all humans are inferior to nonhuman animals because we cannot fly like birds, bats, and insects; we cannot use sonar like dolphins or communicate seismically by infrasound like elephants do; we cannot become pregnant and then decide to delay the birth of our own young because of an ongoing drought like some species can do; we cannot free-dive to the deepest depths of the oceans; we cannot change colors like chameleons; we cannot follow the earth’s magnetic fields to migrate; we cannot do SO many of the remarkable things that nonhuman animals can do. So who’s really superior?

      How do you define superiority? Likely in a manner that benefits yourself. Like our arrogant, anthropocentric species has always done throughout history. I would daresay that Professor Wise is much more learned about the species of nonhuman animals he and his colleagues are working for, and the law, than you or I.

      I’ve been an animal advocate since my pre-teen years in the late 1970’s, full-time for the past seven years, and I can tell you that personal fame and money is not even a blip on the radar of most animal advocates. Anyone who has expectations of those is naive and likely to be sorely disappointed; I would hardly think that Professor Wise is naive. And having followed Professor Wise’s work and that of the Nonhuman Rights Project for some time, I’m convinced beyond any doubt that a genuine respect and passionate sense of seeking justice for these nonhuman species is their sole motivation.

      Professor Wise isn’t “inventing” rights for them – he and his colleagues are working to have their inherent rights recognized by the courts. There’s a difference. Did our Founding Fathers likewise “invent” our rights to life, liberty and happiness stated in our Declaration of Independence, or all our rights enumerated in our Bill of Rights?

      When you note “plaintiffs who never sought him” I might remind you of, say, all of the individuals, organizations and lawmakers who have worked to pass laws infringing on women’s right to safe and legal abortion – as decided by our Supreme Court in their 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling – on behalf of zygotes and fetuses who equally “never sought” them.

      One quality that some humans possess is empathy – the ability to put ourselves in another person’s place and suffer with them – and mind you, studies on elephants have determined they possess this same quality. If one possesses empathy and compassion, it’s not unusual to be able to imagine what these nonhuman species are experiencing and the injurious effects of captivity on them.

      Were I an elephant locked up against my will in a squalid circus trailer en route to yet another venue to be struck and hooked to perform more dangerous tricks for human amusement, or a chimpanzee isolated in a cage who hasn’t seen the sun or my own kind for years, or a dolphin listlessly floating in a tiny aquarium tank that’s an infinitesimal fraction of the natural range I’d swim in the ocean, I’d sure be hoping for a savior like Steven Wise to fight for my rights and help free me from my bondage. Wouldn’t you?

      • Andrew Wolfe on 10.27.2017 at 3:25 pm

        Hello, Lori.

        You assumed wrongly. I have nothing to do with Johns Hopkins in any way.

        For you to attempt to doxx me out as a supposed vivisectionist is frankly, sad.

        As for you, I don’t think you are personally corrupt or cynical. However, you are misled if you think you are elevating the status of animals. Instead, you are degrading the status of humans.

        There is no arc and no moral universe for chimpanzees. My argument is not that a particular chimp cannot pass a bar exam or make an argument in court; the problem is that there is not a single chimp that can do either. You may think it a pejorative that I be “anthropocentric,” but I consider it solidarity which I owe to fellow members of my species. I challenge you to prove there is any other species at all that demonstrates any notion of rights for all its members, let alone recognizing rights for members of other species.

        I’m aware of the supposed attempts to ascribe human cognition and communication to various animals. The fact that animals communicate on a sub-human level has been obvious to humans since prehistory. The fact that their behavior and cognition have resemblances to ours has been part of training human children and animals alike for millennia. We have always known that birds can fly and we can’t. The recent discoveries elaborating this knowledge are truly amazing, I also particularly like the quantum entanglement in bird navigation. But nothing we have discovered in the last 70 or 100 years affects any long-held view of animal nature in the slightest, nor does it show them any more “human,” whether in kind or in capacity. It’s all just addition (fascinating) detail.

        It’s intriguing that you point out DNA similarities. These make it all the more remarkable that humans alone have built mechanisms that surpass virtually every distinct advantage in ability that other species have over us. Now I never used the term “superiority,” but this is a superiority. Understanding, consciousness, morality and law are also human superiorities in which no animal has ever shared.

        Now your citation of the rights of zygotes, the impaired, and the brain-dead have long been reasoned out in law on two bases: the inadmissibility of presuming that such people will never (re) gain the ability to exercise their rights in full, and the intrinsic value of the human nature they share with us. In such cases a “regular” adult human is imputed based generally not on the choice of the state, but on the basis of family relationship. However, because in the U.S. have delegated to the state the imperative responsibility of preserving human life, when kinship fails it the state must step in on the basis of our universal and shared humanity. This is why I do assert the right of every child to be born from the time of conception: because in the renunciation of responsibility by parents, that child still remains part of the greater human family and is entitled to legal protection as is every other human in our jurisdiction.

        But we have no such common bond with animals, however fond we are of them (we have seven pets), and moreover they have no capacity to participate in the legal system by which we might try to enfranchise them. Our empathy can’t give them that capacity. I’m not arguing for cruelty to animals, or for the elimination of animal mistreatment laws. I’m saying that those laws can be defined, expanded and enforced without treating mistreated animals as plaintiffs. They can’t tell us what laws they want. And they certainly have no problem mistreating animals of other species and, in the case of chimpanzees, other apes, and bears of abusing or killing those of their own species. Would they claim that as a right?

        It’s very funny you should cite the Founders and the Constitution in terms of our rights, because these parties identified a God above humanity and above the government as the source of these rights. Then as today, those religionists understood their God as conferring these rights only on humans.

        Now while I can empathize with a circus elephant or an aquarium dolphin, I would only be willing to legislate for their release as animal-mistreatment laws, not as “animal rights.” Animal-mistreatment laws are well-known and well-established law. What’s wrong with that? It’s how we humans have worked for over a century.

        And these realities are something a law professor ignores only as a cynical disregard for existing law and legal precedent.

        Establishing a new class of legal clients, among whom not a single one can choose or replace their legal counsel, is a corrupt way of displacing existing legal rights of humans.

        The whole idea, as I said before, gives nothing to animals and takes a lot away from the notion of human rights.

    • Louise Owen on 11.01.2017 at 4:04 pm

      Morality IS the invention of humans. That’s the POINT. We are moving into a world where the non-human personhood rights of Cecilia, the chimpanzee, for example, have already been granted so you are lagging behind Andrew: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/argentina-judge-says-chimpanzee-poor-conditions-has-rights-and-should-be-freed-from-zoo-a7402606.html

      If we took your argument to its conclusion, fighting for the rights of abused children, who do not seek legal representation, would be a no go, as would the fight to free slaves before laws existed to protect them!!This is a creative world of ever evolving morality, thank goodness.

  • Jose Artigas on 10.26.2017 at 3:09 pm

    Anyone who seeks it advance & expand rights, whether civil, human or nonhuman, is a hero. “Though the Heavens may Fall,” Stephen Wise’s book on the 1772 Somerset case, which began the process of ending slavery in Britain, is masterful on its related subject. For Wise, rights are a continuum encompassing homo sapiens along with other higher primates. Andrew Wolfe’s comment seems serious if it applies to humans. But by protesting Wise’s case on behalf of chimps, Wolfe inadvertently supports the notion that Wise’s “clients” have rights — because they may be violated.

    BTW Mr. Wolfe, many humans fail the bar exam. By your own faulty logic, they should be denied their rights too!

    • Andrew Wolfe on 10.27.2017 at 4:03 pm

      Jose, you are correct my phrasing was faulty. However, I can fix it pretty easily. A species in which no single individual has ever been, nor can ever be a lawyer, in which no single individual is capable even of articulating a claim to legal recourse, is not really capable of having legal rights. Wise certainly sees a continuum between humans and chimps – such a continuum is logically unsupportable. There’s more of a continuum between chimps and dogs and cetaceans than between any of those and us. When one posts a rebuttal, however, I’ll be willing to consider it.

      Regarding advancing and expanding rights, I see no reason to add any additional rights nor to extend rights beyond humans. Do we need anything more than what we’ve got? If we expand rights somewhere, do we start restricting rights elsewhere? The horse you ride today may be Wise’s plaintiff tomorrow.

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