A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Q & A with Steven M. Wise


In the wake of the cover story about the Nonhuman Rights Project in this weekend’s New York Times magazine, people have been writing in with lots of questions. I put some of them to Steven M. Wise, President of the NhRP:

Going through the courts to have chimpanzees and other kinds of animals recognized as having the capacity for even the most basic legal rights is long and complicated. Meanwhile, Tommy, Kiko, Hercules and Leo are still languishing in dreadful situations. Why not just ask local authorities or the humane society to step in and rescue them?

Steven M. Wise: Well, the problem is that the chimpanzees may be being mistreated, but they’re not being illegally mistreated. And of course that’s the reason we filed a writ of habeas corpus in the first place because it’s the only remedy that exists when a nonhuman animal like a chimpanzee is being treated in a way that’s harmful to the chimpanzee. But otherwise it’s perfectly legal.

While the first three cases covering these four chimpanzees are working their way through the New York State legal system, you’re also looking at bringing new lawsuits. Where are you going next?

We’ve tentatively chosen certain elephants as the petitioners for our next habeas corpus petitions.

S.M.W.: Every state has different rules and precedents when it comes to habeas corpus petitions. We’ve spent years looking at all of them, and there are five or six states that we think are most favorable. So we’re looking at those top states and seeing whether there are apes, cetaceans (whales and dolphins) or elephants there who need our help. Then we’ll decide which animals we want to file suit on in the states where we think we have the best chance of prevailing.

We’ve tentatively chosen our next state, in fact, and we’ve tentatively chosen certain elephants in that state as the petitioners for our next habeas corpus petitions, and we have begun contacting elephant experts from around the world to help us in the case the way we brought in the chimpanzee experts.

There are hundreds of elephants in zoos and circuses all over the United States. How are you going to get all of them out to sanctuaries? Right now, there are only two or three sanctuaries in the entire country.

S.M.W.: Well, first we’re trying to get any single elephant out, and we have already been working with a sanctuary – with PAWS (the Performing Animal Welfare Society) in California. With the chimpanzees, we’ve been working with the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. And now PAWS has agreed to take our first few elephants that we hope to be able to get out on our writs of habeas corpus.

After that, I don’t know, but right now we are just trying to get the first ones out the same way we are trying to get the first chimpanzees out.

The NhRP gets calls from people with horrible stories about pets who have been shot by the neighbor or a malpractice situation or whatever. Where do pets figure in terms of possibly having legal rights at some future time?

S.M.W.: When you say pets, I’m assuming you’re talking about such companion animals as dogs and cats. Dogs and cats are not really on the radar of the Nonhuman Rights Project right now. Right now, we’re dealing with nonhuman animals who have been studied more intensively than dogs or cats and who are seen to be extraordinarily cognitively complex in a way that’s similar to a way that human beings are.

There’s a lot of work being done with canine cognition now, but they have a lot of work to do to catch up with the scientific work over the last half century that’s been done, say, with apes. So we may eventually get to them, but they aren’t on our short term list of nonhuman animals that we’ll be litigating on behalf of.

What about farmed animals? And isn’t that one of the things that people are worried about – that if it’s a chimpanzee today, then this is the thin end of the wedge or the start of the slippery slope and that you’re going to be back in court with cows and pigs and saying that nobody can eat meat anymore?

S.M.W.: Well right now, we are simply trying to have a high court recognize that a single nonhuman animal who has this extraordinarily complex cognition and is autonomous and self-aware, is a legal person for the capacity for rights. And we think it’s most likely going to be an ape or cetacean or an elephant. That’s all we’re focusing on now. We haven’t even begun the research – we don’t even know what kind of research exists – for animals we currently use for food or even as companion animals. So I don’t know what can happen way down the road, but that certainly is not going to happen soon.

What do you think about all the other initiatives that are underway at the moment, like the bill that was introduced in California that would protect killer whales from being used in entertainment?

S.M.W.: I think the idea of nonhuman animals, at least some of them, being treated in more respectful ways, even ways that might respect their rights, is really in the air. It’s really starting to stir, not just throughout the United States, but throughout the world – like with the recent International Court of Justice decision against Japan.

And I think New York and California are working on whether or not they are going to ban cetaceans in shows. There’s a lot going on. And there’s a lot going on not just in one place, but throughout the United States and throughout the world. So I think momentum is building.

What would it mean when the Nonhuman Rights Project wins its first case? Won’t that be a momentous event? A first of its kind?

Once we win our first case, legislatures and courts are going to be jumping in. It’s certainly going to spin out of our control almost immediately!

S.M.W.: Oh yes, there’s never been a nonhuman animal who’s been seen by a court to be a legal person – that is with the capacity for a legal right. And we are pushing and pushing as hard as we can to persuade a state high court that our nonhuman animal plaintiff – likely an ape, a cetacean, or an elephant – is indeed a legal person with a certain kind of fundamental right, probably the right to bodily liberty that is protected by a writ of habeas corpus.

Once any court recognizes that any nonhuman animal is a legal person and has the capacity for some kind of legal right, then we are going to try to persuade many courts to begin looking at many sorts of petitioners and asking the question not “What is their species?” but “What kind of a being are they? What kind of capacities do they have? Are they the kind of being who ought to be a legal person? And if so, what kind of rights should they have?”

And once we win our first case, I think legislatures are going to be jumping in, courts are going to be jumping in. It’s certainly going to spin out of our control almost immediately!