Featured Speakers #2

Updates on Litigation Filed on Behalf of Chimpazees

Prof. Steven Wise

Chair of the last session of today was Joyce Tischler, Founder of the Animal Legal Defence Fund, who introduced Prof. Steven Wise, the President of the Nonhuman Rights Project, as a friend and as a great achiever in his pursuit to create legal personhood for animals.

The Nonhuman Rights Project is an organization working toward actual legal rights for nonhuman animals. Their mission is to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from things to persons, who possess fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them. Their first cases were filed in 2013.

But to tell us where the Nonhuman Rights Project is at right now, Prof. Wise told us first where it all started from: in the early work he did with/for the Animal Legal Defence Fund. During this period he realised how the relationship between man and animal is the same between master and slave. This was an insight that led Prof. Wise to study the development of slavery and its abolition, such as the case of the African slave James Somerset, who was able to undergo a legal transubstantiation. He stepped in the court room as a thing and left it as a person. Therefore in the 1990s Wise started to think of how the concept of habeas corpus, present in the James Somerset case, could be extended to persuade a court that a non human animal was no longer a legal thing but a legal person. From these thoughts in 1985 to the practice, it took Prof. Wise 29 years to finally presume that he would have a reasonable chance of winning before the court. Finally, in 2007 Prof. Wise decided that the Nonhuman Rights Project had to take action and he has been able to attract a very good multidisciplinary team of lawyers, students, scientists, sociologists, media people, etc. to actively work on it. The team had to then decide which states they wanted to litigate in; to figure this out, they had more than 60 legal issues and 3000 legal questions, which would indicate in which State they were going to have the highest rate of success. The final 6 states were finally chosen, and number one  on the list was the State of New York. They decided to focus on 2 chimpanzees of a road-side zoo in the State New York. Unfortunately both of them died shortly after and the litigation could not be pursued. Hit by the news the team decide to move faster and file habeas corpus for all the chimpanzees in the State of New York, which at the moment were 5, now 4.

On December 2nd 2013 the Nonhuman Rights Project began its legal journey and issued the following press release:

Dec. 2, 2013 – New York, NY – The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) announced today that it has filed the first-ever lawsuits on behalf of captive chimpanzees demanding that the courts grant them the right to bodily liberty via a writ of habeas corpus. The suits, filed in New York Supreme Court, are based on scientific evidence proving that chimpanzees are self-aware and autonomous, and therefore entitled to be recognized as “legal persons” with certain fundamental legal rights.
The four captive chimpanzee plaintiffs, all located in the state of New York, are:
  • Tommy – a 26-year-old chimpanzee living in a used trailer lot in Gloversville, NY, isolated in a cage in a dark shed on the owner’s property.
  • Hercules and Leo – two young male chimpanzees owned by New Iberia Research Center, used in a locomotion research experiment in the Anatomy Department at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, NY.
  • Kiko – a 26-year-old chimpanzee living in Niagara Falls, NY, on private property where he is caged and was previously used in the entertainment industry.
The lawsuits ask the judge to grant the chimpanzees the right to bodily liberty and to order that they be moved to a sanctuary that’s part of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA), where they can live out their days with others of their kind in an environment as close to the wild as is possible in North America.
“No one has ever demanded a legal right for a nonhuman animal, until now,” said Steven M. Wise, founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project. “When we go to court on behalf of the first chimpanzee plaintiffs, we’ll be asking judges to recognize, for the first time, that these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned.”
Legal claims made by the Nonhuman Rights Project are rooted in genetic, cognitive, physiological, evolutionary and taxonomic evidence that the plaintiffs are self-aware and autonomous. The species has been studied long and extensively by some of the world’s most well-respected scientists. The organization is seeking rights that are appropriate for the plaintiffs based on existing scientific evidence.
“Not long ago, people generally agreed that human slaves could not be legal persons, but were simply the property of their owners,” attorney Wise continued. “We will assert, based on clear scientific evidence, that it’s time to take the next step and recognize that these nonhuman animals cannot continue to be exploited as the property of their human ‘owners.’
“Abraham Lincoln put it best when he said that ‘in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.’”
The cases filed today are the first in a series that the Nonhuman Rights Project plans to file throughout the United States on behalf of captive animals who are scientifically proven to be self-aware and autonomous. Those include great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos), elephants and cetaceans (dolphins and whales).

To follow the cases visit the archive of the document archive of the Nonhuman Rights Project; to have an insight in Prof. Wise´s work, check out this video by the New York Times:

Martina Pluda
Communications Officer
Master in Animal Law and Society
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

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