A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Monkey Business and Nonhuman Rights


NPR’s Linton Weeks explores the topic of animal rights, monkey rodeos, and the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project in seeking certain legal rights for specific nonhuman animals.

At the warm-up to a baseball game in Frederick, Maryland, Weeks watches a typical monkey rodeo that includes Sam the capuchin dressed up as a cowboy riding a Border collie around the field and then throwing out the first pitch at the minor league game.

Protestors wave placards, but there’s not much else they can do. The owner of the monkey rodeo stunt, Tim Lepard, justifies what he’s doing by saying that the animals he “takes in” probably wouldn’t do well in the wild. (What’s a statement like that supposed to mean?) In any case, he says, “I don’t tie them on the dogs.” And to further reassure us, he adds that he feeds them Pop-Tarts.

Weeks’s story then turns to the work of Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), whose team is preparing to file a series of lawsuits that “could be a game changer for animal rights in America.”

“Once a court recognizes that a nonhuman animal has the capacity to possess a legal right,” Wise says, “its determination of whether she actually has the rights she claims will appropriately shift from the current irrational, biased, hyperformalistic and overly simplistic question ‘What species is the plaintiff?’ to the rational, nuanced, value-laden principles- and policy-laden question: ‘What qualities does the plaintiff possess that are relevant to the legal right she claims?'”

In an address delivered in April 2012, at Pace University law school, Wise likened animals today to human slaves in 18th century England — invisible to the legal system, beings without rights. He cited the ruling of the British judge, Lord Mansfield, in the 1772 Somerset case that opened the door for the abolition of human slavery in England.

Now Wise says he is looking for a modern-day Mansfield, a “substantive common-law judge” who might rule — under the general rubric of “dignity” — in favor of an animal’s right to bodily liberty and bodily integrity. He feels that the breakthrough will come if one state high court declares that a nonhuman is a legal person — in the eyes of the law.

Basically, even though the term “animal rights” is routinely used both by animal protection groups and by naysayers, no animals except humans have any legal rights at all. Steven Wise explains that regardless of their cognitive abilities, their ability to act intentionally, and their demonstrable sense of self, the fact that they are of a different species automatically rules them out as “legal persons” and denies them the capacity for any kind of legal right at all.

“Because it appears that many, perhaps most, mammals and birds have emotions, are conscious, and have selves,” Wise writes in his 2002 book Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights, “the burden of proving at trial that an individual mammal or bird lacks practical autonomy should be shouldered by the one who wants to harm them.”

Weeks quotes Richard A. Epstein, a professor of law at New York University, as disagreeing with Wise. But Epstein’s rebuttal seems to focus not so much on the legal aspects of the case, and more on his fear that giving certain other animals the legal right not to be abused – like in medical experimentation – would cause inconvenience to us humans.

“It is one thing to raise social conscience about the status of animals. It is quite another to raise the status of animals to asserted parity with human beings. That move, if systematically implemented, would pose a mortal threat to human society that few human beings would, or should, accept. We have quite enough difficulty in persuading or coercing human beings to respect the rights of their fellow humans to live in peace with each other.”

That’s a bit of a straw man, in that Wise isn’t talking about parity; he’s talking about appropriate legal rights, like the rights to bodily liberty and bodily integrity, based on clear scientifically demonstrated levels of cognition and self-awareness.

Weeks writes that “animal rights” activism has a long history, and that history may be approaching a genuine tipping point in the way we humans see our fellow animals. Certainly, if the Nonhuman Rights Project succeeds in court, the legal system will be at the beginning of a whole new way of judging how we view legal personhood and the capacity for appropriate legal rights.

The whole article is here. And on the NhRP’s site, you’ll find a series of beautifully simple explanations of legal personhood and of the kind of legal rights the NhRP is seeking. (Note: the article says that the NhRP is based in Pennsylvania. In fact, its offices are in Florida and in D.C.)