If Corporations Have Rights Like People, Shouldn't Animals?
By Sue Russell, Miller-McCune.com
On December 19, 1994, animal protection lawyer Steven Wise — a deeply patient man — was frustrated. A decade into his 25-year plan to upend the fundamental legal principle that animals are property or "things" with no more rights than a table or bicycle, he was barely making a dent.
Wise's passion for animal rights dates to 1979 when reading philosopher Peter Singer's landmark book Animal Liberation proved both revelation and rude awakening. "I really felt that I could not really un-ring that bell," he says. "There was more injustice there to be fought than any I could think of anywhere in the universe."
Wise had found his calling. His grand ambition is for nothing short of a legal revolution. He wants to systematically overturn more than 2,000 years of law by winning basic common law rights for other sentient beings we now know suffer, feel fear, have complex emotions, and possess sometimes startling levels of intelligence. Welfare laws notwithstanding, unless they are "legal persons," to Wise they have no rights at all in the eyes of the law and therefore their lives don't count.
He had no illusions that change could come any way but slowly. "I realized this wasn't like a 1930s Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland thing where they say, 'Hey! Let's put on a show!" But on that watershed day in December — his 44th birthday — he had an epiphany.
"I woke up and said this is not going fast enough," he recalls, "and if I'm going to be pivotal in gaining legal rights for nonhuman animals — which I thought I was, and I think I will be — I'd better get moving."
He walked away from his comfortable 18-year law partnership and founded The Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights, the world's first nonprofit dedicated to achieving legal rights for nonhuman primates, and later the Nonhuman Rights Project.
In 2000, primate researcher Jane Goodall, who wrote the foreword, called his book, titled Rattling the Cage, "the animals' Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence and Universal Declaration of Rights all in one." The Yale Law Journal dubbed him a "piston" of the animal rights movement.
Wise subscribes to
Animal law is a growth industry. "I would call it an emerging field," says Frankie Trull, founder and president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. "It's in its infancy." Harvard and
Steven Wise taught animal rights law at Harvard and at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. He is now an adjunct professor at Lewis and
Early on, when Wise made arguments on behalf of a dog, people laughed aloud in the courtroom. Nevertheless, he was, "ecstatic" just to be able to bring cases involving animals before a judge. But by 1985, the feeling faded, giving way to goals far loftier than pet trusts and animal custody battles. He'd visited biomedical research laboratories and slaughterhouses, become a vegetarian, and conceived his quarter-of-a-century plan.
Wise believes that nonhuman animals meet the criteria for "personhood" and other human-style rights and protections if they are enough like us to have "consciousness" or "mind" — self-awareness and the capacity to experience their own existence — and when they are capable of desiring things and of acting in a deliberate fashion to acquire them. Chimpanzees, for instance, use tools, and some can count, make a cup of tea, and communicate with sign language. African elephants, African grey parrots, dolphins, dogs, gorillas, orangutans, cetaceans, and others also have varied but impressive mental abilities.
Initially, however, Wise's focus is chimpanzees and bonobos. Chimpanzees share 95-98.7 percent of their chromosomes with humans. This genetic closeness makes chimps and other primates prime candidates for certain research studies, but the similarity also powers the animal rights community's call for a serious rethink on experimenting on them.
Wise believes animals should have rights to bodily liberty and bodily integrity — you can't be touched without your consent, or, criminals aside, be physically confined. Many who share Wise's reverence for animals, however, consider his goals unrealistic, undesirable, or both —undesirable because giving nonhuman primates human-style civil and legal rights would, they say, create a mountain of unintended consequences.
David Favre, for example, a longtime friend of Wise's, stops short of the legal "personhood" for animals goal. He advocates for increasing their rights incrementally to perhaps include the kind of guardianship protections afforded children, the senile and the insane.
Critics warn that the impact of "personhood" could go far beyond scientific research to preclude certain animals being kept as pets or used as food. They ask where the line will be drawn. Might bacteria have rights? That's what
However, philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer, who co-founded the Great Ape Project with Italian philosopher Paola Cavalieri in 1993, calls only for limited rights akin to those afforded humans, such as freedom from torture, not rights to things like medical care or education.
Richard Cupp will tell you about his tight bond with his dog and how much he loves animals, yet he believes that the moral placing of pets on the same level as humans devalues humanity and that pets are not equal in value to humans.
There is a broad spectrum of opinion on these issues. And with the same people who favor laws to protect animals' welfare often simultaneously supportive of their use in research, in circuses, or as food, they are inherently complicated.
Steven Wise's path is clear to him, however, and he does not waver. His biggest foe is history — the "this is how it's always been done" response. "But all of the good arguments are on our side," he says. When he was starting out, he plugged the names of iconic animal rights philosophers Peter Singer and Tom Regan into a legal search engine. Nothing. Shocked, Wise concluded that writings on animal rights had taken a moral and philosophical approach, not a jurisprudential one, and so he went to work.
After penning law review articles "that not even my mother read," he wrote more books, honing both his philosophy and legal strategy. His 2005 book, Though The Heavens May Fall, examined the trial in
As Wise's quarter century draws to a close, the interdisciplinary Nonhuman Rights Project is working full tilt. It's very serious business involving many minds: political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, lawyers, statisticians, cognitive scientists, primatologists, cetacean experts, public policy experts, and computer modelers.
Currently, more than 50 people in six "working groups" are analyzing relevant state laws and legal precedents. They are researching, for example, how proponents of gay marriage chose jurisdictions in which to litigate and how certain high courts deal with non-autonomous humans like the comatose, mentally retarded, embryos, and fetuses. They are trying to pinpoint the most promising causes of action and the friendliest states and jurisdictions in which to file suit.
The plan is to file a landmark case demanding state high courts declare at least one nonhuman animal possesses a legal right — and is therefore a legal "person." Choosing the optimal venue — perhaps a state whose Supreme Court is weighted with female judges or has overturned an anti-gay marriage statute — is critical.
Then the goal is clear: file a case, win it, and survive the inevitable appeal to the first-ever serious legal challenge to "thinghood."
"Courses that promote standards for humane animal care and welfare are unlikely to provoke conflict," he wrote, "but programs championing animal rights or 'liberation' set up adversarial potential on campuses and pose a serious risk to the future of animal research."
Joyce Tischler, founder and chief counsel of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) said such reactions remind her of early environmental law classes, when the refrain was, "Oh my God, it's so radical!" She says that Steven Wise aside, courses are basically animal protection law and may not even include a section on animal rights.
ALDF attorney Matthew Liebman responded to
They are certainly not going away.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs