The Nonhuman Rights Project – by Prof. Steven M. Wise

Steven Wise is the founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), an organisation which is challenging civil law to treat animals as legal ‘persons’ with legal rights, instead of legal ‘things’ with no legal rights.  Steven holds a J.D. from Boston University Law School and a B.S. in Chemistry from the College of William and Mary.  He has practised animal protection law for 30 years throughout the US and is author of four books.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance”. — Robert F. Kennedy (1966)

Since Roman times, the world has been divided into legal ‘things’ and legal ‘persons’. Things lack the capacity for any legal rights, they are invisible to, and don’t count in, the civil law. ‘Persons’ have the capacity for an infinite number of legal rights, are highly visible to the civil law, and most definitely count in a fundamental way.

Contrary to what many believe, ‘person’ and ‘human’ are not now, nor have they ever been, synonyms. Nonhuman animals have always been legal ‘things’ so that even the most fundamental interests of the most cognitively complex and autonomous nonhuman animals, such as great apes, elephants, and cetaceans, are protected, if at all, through ineffective animal welfare statutes that address their interests only indirectly and do not allow humans to sue on their behalf.  But throughout history, human slaves, women, and children were also characterized as rightless legal things. On the other hand, many nonhumans have long been considered persons with legal rights, including corporations, cities, countries, and ships throughout the West, a Hindu idol, a mosque, a horse, a bull, and a bird in India, and recently, a river and national park in New Zealand, the Columbian Amazon rainforest and an Argentine chimp.

Current law is outdated and unfit for purpose

What the legal thinghood of nonhuman animals means in practice is that the innumerable injustices that nonhuman animals suffer at the hands of the most powerful animal in the world – humans – cannot be remedied in court unless humans can allege direct harm to their own (human) interests.

If nonhuman animals’ current legal status strikes you as irrational, that’s because it is.  If it strikes you as archaic, out of keeping with scientific evidence and human experience of nonhuman animals’ cognitive, emotional, and social complexity, that’s because it is.  If it strikes you as an arbitrary exercise of power, that’s because it is. What’s more, it is fundamentally insufficient to meet the global threats faced by all animals, including us, and will become ever more so as the planet continues to warm, species continue to die off, and natural habitats continue to be destroyed.

Bringing animal law up to date

That is why, beginning in December 2013, after decades of preparation and backed by affidavits from some of the most respected scientists in the world, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has gone to court again and again – with complete confidence in the social, historical, political, and legal justice and inevitability of our arguments – to demand that courts reimagine the legal status of our demonstrably self-aware and autonomous nonhuman animal clients and transform them from legal things with no capacity for rights to legal persons with fundamental rights. We began by spending years studying the fundamental values and principles – most notably liberty, autonomy, equality, and fairness, along with rational and non-arbitrary decision-making – that the courts of target jurisdictions claim constitute justice. We then spent years gathering every relevant scientific fact from the most-respected experts in nonhuman animal cognition and fashion our legal arguments in favor of the personhood of our nonhuman animal clients in terms of those very fundamental values and principles.

Writ of Habeas Corpus

We began implementing our strategy by filing lawsuits on behalf of four captive chimpanzees – Tommy, Kiko, Hercules, and Leo in New York – and, later, on behalf of three captive elephants – Beulah, Karen, and Minnie in Connecticut – demanding the recognition of their fundamental right to bodily liberty protected by a writ of habeas corpus, and their immediate transfer to sanctuaries, where their autonomy will be respected to the maximum extent possible under the circumstances. 

And we are making rapid progress. For example, in 2015, for the first time in history, a judge issued a habeas corpus ‘order to show cause’ that required a defendant, in that case Stony Brook University, to come into court and give a legally sufficient reason for imprisoning Hercules and Leo, who were being used for experimentation.  In 2016, a chimpanzee named Cecilia was freed from an Argentine zoo to a Brazilian sanctuary through habeas corpus litigation that was modeled on the NhRP’s litigation. 

In May of this year, a New York high court judge issued an historic opinion that we believe will come to be seen as a turning point in the worldwide struggle to attain legal rights for nonhuman animals, writing in Tommy and Kiko’s cases:

– that the argument over whether a chimpanzee or any nonhuman animal is entitled to habeas    corpus is ‘profound’ and ‘far-reaching’ and ‘speaks to our relationship with all the life around us’,

– that, ‘there is no doubt that [a chimpanzee] is not merely a thing’,

– that the courts’ failure to grapple with the issues the NhRP raises ‘amounts to a refusal to confront a manifest injustice’, and

– that the determination of whether any nonhuman animal should be a person with fundamental legal rights should depend not on whether they are human but upon ‘the intrinsic nature of their species’.

Amicus Curiae               

Significantly, this decision was influenced by an amicus curiae (‘Friend of the Court’) brief filed by a group of seventeen diverse North American philosophers in support of our argument that our chimpanzee clients should be considered to be ‘persons’ with the fundamental right to bodily liberty protected by a writ of habeas corpus. We had submitted our arguments and the decisions of the judges to these philosophers. They in turn combed through the decisions to detect whether the courts were making philosophical errors atop their legal errors. Their reaction to what they found constituted the backbone of their amicus curiae brief.  They will soon file a second amicus curaie brief in support of our habeas corpus lawsuit on behalf of the three elephants in Connecticut.

Judge Fahey’s opinion was followed a few weeks later by a decision from one of New York’s intermediate appellate courts that ‘it is common knowledge that personhood can and sometimes does attach to nonhuman entities like corporations or animals’ and that  the questions of whether an entity should be a person is not a question of biology, but of sound public policy.

Unlocking the Cage

Our rights-based litigation is about literally changing the world for nonhuman animals by requiring human beings to respect their most fundamental interests and rights. And we are succeeding. But we do not limit ourselves to litigation. We are beginning to accomplish the same goals though municipal legislation. We partner with legal organizations around the world in their struggle to achieve legal personhood for nonhuman animals in their countries.  And we work to educate judges, legislators, and citizens about the justice of our struggle, including through the HBO/BBC/Arte film about our work, Unlocking the Cage, which was last month nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy in the category of ‘Best Social Issue Documentary’.

The key role of the interfaith movement as amicus curiae

We now invite you, as a member of a faith-based community and interfaith alliance, to join us in this historic struggle.

        In our view, the best way to bring about a world where all animals (including humans) are treated with respect and compassion is to extend the well-known principles of human rights to nonhuman animals in the form of recognition of their rights. There is much hope to be found in the systemic change we seek, but it will not come as soon as it could without diverse voices joining us to challenge the injustice of nonhuman animals’ thinghood and lack of rights within and through the courts.

With the ability to speak powerfully to shared moral principles and inspire thought and action, members of faith-based communities and interfaith alliances have an important and unique role to play in this debate: including speaking directly to the courts in the form of amicus curiae briefs in support of our ongoing lawsuits.

With gratitude for the work you are already doing, we ask you to join us in calling for a more inclusive vision of justice; one that includes nonhuman animals and enshrines their basic freedoms as a matter of right instead of keeping them walled into perpetual legal thinghood. Many of our arguments and the decisions of the judges are here tinyurl.com/nhrpfaithleaders. We invite you to comb through their decisions to ascertain whether the courts are making theological errors atop their philosophical and legal errors. If you believe they are, we invite you give the judges the benefit of your diverse theological expertise and experience in support of our arguments that our clients should have certain fundamental legal rights by submitting one or more amicus curiae briefs (the preparation of which we can assist you with if you need our help).

Please help us raise the chorus of voices calling for nonhuman rights loud and clear enough so they soar above the tumult of voices that, whether from fear, apathy, or self-interest, seek to preserve an unjust status quo – which in the end, serves none of us.


Please contact us to get involved: Steven M. Wise, Esq., Founder and President, Nonhuman Rights Project (Swise@nonhumanrights.org) Kevin Schneider, Esq., Executive Director (KSchneider@nonhumanrights.org).

Further information can be found at the Nonhuman Rights Project website at http://www.nonhumanrights.org/

Books by Steven Wise include ‘Ratting the Cage – Toward Legal Rights for Animals’; ‘Drawing the Line – Science and the Case for Animal rights’; ‘Though the Heavens May Fall – the Landmark Trial that led to the End of Human Slavery’ and ‘An American Trilogy – Death, Slavery and Dominion along the Banks of Cape Fear’.