(This is the complete video of the session with Steven M. Wise at the “I Am NOT an Animal!” symposium, including his talk, followed by panel and audience discussion.)
The great irony of the animal rights movement in the United States is that, to this day, there is still only one species that has any legal rights at all: humans.
While there are laws that protect certain animals from certain forms of abuse, the animals themselves don’t have the right not to be abused. Essentially, they have the same legal status as a car or a DVD player in that, while there are laws that prevent me from stealing or vandalizing your car, the car itself doesn’t have the right not to be vandalized. The same applies to a dog, an elephant, a chimpanzee or any other animal. Each of them is treated as a piece of property.
So, when an organization tells you they’re working for “animal rights”, what they usually mean is they’re working for animal “welfare” – meaning that they’re trying to make things a bit better for animals who have no rights.
Welfare laws can achieve things like giving a factory farmed chicken a few more inches of space in the cage where she spends her entire life. And yes, that’s better than not having a few extra inches. But these small, incremental improvements don’t get at the root of the problem. They’re like child labor laws that require the children to have at least six hours of sleep per night – better than five hours as long as you don’t mind that the kids are still slaves. Animal rights advocacy starts from the basic premise that these animals do not exist for the benefit of humans.
Similarly, the underlying premise of wildlife conservation laws is that elephants and lions and others should be protected so they’ll still be there “for our grandchildren,” and that we shouldn’t fish the oceans to destruction because that will leave us without any fish to eat.
Welfarism accepts the basic premise that the animals, children and slaves whom they’re trying to protect exist primarily for the benefit of the people who own them.
True animal rights advocacy starts from the premise that these animals do not exist for the benefit of humans. Rather, as Henry Beston famously put it, “They are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
In this session of the “I Am NOT an Animal!” symposium, attorney Steven M. Wise explains the legal system that holds in place the injustice of treating nonhuman animals as pieces of property.
Steve is the founder and President of the Nonhuman Rights Project, which gained worldwide attention in 2013 when it filed the first-ever habeas corpus lawsuits on behalf of nonhuman animals (in this case captive chimpanzees), arguing that as cognitively complex, autonomous beings, they should be recognized as “legal persons” with the fundamental right to bodily liberty.
Steve’s continuing work is the subject of the movie Unlocking the Cage, by Oscar-winner D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.