The ‘animal personhood’ movement believes dolphins, great apes, and elephants deserve to be able to sue — and now it has a plaintiff.
Somewhere in America—its lawyers won’t say where—a chimpanzee is about to have its day in court.
In the next few months, an animal advocacy group called the Nonhuman Rights Project plans to file a case on behalf of its first animal client. It has already chosen the plaintiff, a captive chimp, on whose behalf it plans to file a writ of habeas corpus and ask a state court judge to grant the chimp’s liberty.
Their goal is to win animals a toehold in the world of legal rights—a strategy that is the culmination of more than two decades of writing and legal work by lawyer Steven Wise and an allied group of attorneys, scientists, and animal activists. They hope to have an animal declared a “person” in a court of law, breaking down a legal barrier between humans and other species that has stood for millennia.
Over the last century, animals have enjoyed a steady march in legal protections. Once treated no differently than inanimate objects, today they can’t be abandoned, beaten, or deprived of food, shelter, or veterinary care. Despite these protections, however, animals are still legally considered property. And for Wise and others, given what we now know about the biology and inner lives of animals, this is no longer a tenable distinction. It is time, they argue, to grant at least some species fundamental rights such as the right to life and freedom from captivity—and the surest way to accomplish that is for those animals to join human beings as legal persons.
Critics say legal personhood for animals is misguided, and even dangerous. They foresee a slippery slope in which a tightening web of rights starts to cripple scientific progress not just on life-saving medical research, but also on such goals as species conservation. Even within the animal-rights movement, the idea is controversial.
But Wise’s strategy is an imaginative solution to a quandary that bedevils animal advocates: how other species should be treated in a legal system that lumps everything into the categories of persons or things. As we learn more about animal intelligence and emotional complexity, these activists say, it is becoming clearer that the law needs a new way to talk about animals, whether that involves a special property designation just for animals or complete animal liberation from human use.
Wise, for his part, contends that legal personhood for a limited number of species—at least in the short term—is the most defensible and effective solution. Though it’s possible that this first case will be tossed out of court, he is prepared to bring more cases on behalf of other animals, which he believes will be turning points in the long expansion of who, or what, deserves inherent rights before law.