Activist challenges judges to redefine chimpanzees’ legal status

Animal rights lawyer Steven Wise courts controversy


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If Steven Wise has his way, chimps will have quasi-human rights.

Lawsuits on behalf of captive chimpanzees in America could be a turning point in how the judiciary adjudicates on animal rights.

A group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project filed lawsuits on behalf of the chimps claiming they were ‘nonhuman animals’ that had a right to live free from confinement and not be regarded as property but as ‘legal persons’.1

The organisation’s website summarized the move:

“These habeas corpus2 writs are a way of going before the court to argue that our chimpanzee plaintiffs are legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty, based on their level of complex cognition, self-awareness and autonomy, rather than simply pieces of property that can be owned, imprisoned and used for experiments.”3

The movement is headed by founder and lawyer Steven Wise, who cites evolutionary philosopher Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation as a light-bulb moment in his decision to pursue the animal rights cause.

It has been his life’s work to build a case and argue before a judge that an animal is a legal entity with rights and therefore should be freed of such discrimination as being kept in a cage.

Armed with scientific evidence (including from several primatologists), Wise went to court to “prove that because chimpanzees demonstrate complex cognitive abilities, they should be recognized as legal persons with the right to live free from confinement”.4

None of the three cases succeeded and one judge even refused a hearing, but Wise said the real fight would begin before the higher appellant courts.

“These were the outcomes we expected. All nonhuman animals have been legal things for centuries. That is not going to change easily. What we didn’t expect, however, were the strong words of encouragement and support from the judges and their acknowledgement of the strength of our arguments. So we are now in a good position to appeal each decision to the appropriate New York Appellate Division.”5

The legal move is a leap beyond protecting animals from abusive practices and has caused many to ask whether such a ruling, if successful, could lead to making it illegal to wear fur or to even eat meat.

When questioned on such implications, Wise said pushing for more rights was on his agenda but did not say what rights they could be:

“We’ll start by arguing to judges that these animals have the right to bodily liberty, and from there, I anticipate arguing with them about what kinds of other rights these animals might be entitled to have.”6

To understand Wise’s crusade, we need to look back on his career as a lawyer specialising in animal protection; as well as to Singer’s possible influence.

Before Wise, no lawyer had really pushed such animal rights. He became a lecturer and author (both books and articles) on the subject and presided over the Animal Legal Defense Fund before he founded the Nonhuman Rights Project.

The Nonhuman Rights Project 9447-steven-wise
Animal rights activist Steven Wise sees no difference between a chimpanzee and a child.

A disinterested party may give Wise the benefit of doubt and say that animal welfare is the over-riding reason for his agenda. But consider that in 2002 Wise told a newspaper: “I don’t see any difference between a chimpanzee and my 4½-year-old son.” That statement alone, along with what Peter Singer—the man whom Wise acknowledges as his greatest point of reference—teaches and advocates, should dispel any doubts about the de-humanising philosophy that drives them.7

Singer is co-founder of The Great Ape Project that wants basic legal rights for chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans. His support for abortion, infanticide and euthanasia among other things is linked to his radical evolutionary beliefs.

Singer sees apes as our cousins and has said that the human embryo—at least until it develops a nervous system—is the moral equivalent of a lettuce.8

As well, Singer sees it as totally immoral, even criminal, to boil a lobster, but has advocated infanticide for newborns.9 It’s reasonable to assume that Wise may have some sympathies for such philosophies given his glowing support for such a radical individual.

Wise’s response to a question about where he saw the cases heading may provide some clues:

“Judges will need to grapple with the rules for chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants, and many other animals for decades to come. But as far as where we’re headed, I can tell you two things. The first is that we aren’t going anywhere. This is a long-term campaign, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we had five cases going next year. The only limiting factor is money—as the money comes in, the cases go out. The second is that we’re in a period where important factors are very fluid. The science is fluid, it’s changing all the time—what we know about animals has exploded. We couldn’t have filed these lawsuits even five years ago. And the more we learn, the more we’re understanding how cognitively complex these animals really are. Public opinion is changing too: when I taught my first animal law class, it was one of two in the country, and now there are over 300. I think that people are seeing animals, and thinking of animals, quite differently than they did a few decades ago. I don’t know where these factors lead, but I do know that where we are right now is grossly immoral and unjust. And that needs to change.”10

Wise uses terms such as ‘grossly immoral and unjust’ in regards to how humans treat animals. Treating animals with kindness is something with a biblical basis, of course (e.g. Proverbs 12:10). The RSPCA was established on an explicitly Christian basis by predominantly conservative and evangelical Christians, including William Wilberforce, who also fought to end slavery.11 But that does not extend to regarding them as quasi-humans, the flipside to downgrading humans to be just animals, as Singer and Wise hold.

When Wise spoke at the Personhood Beyond the Human conference at Yale University last December,12 he stressed how closely connected he regarded chimps to humans and that to deny them freedom was ‘species discrimination’ which he likened to racial discrimination. Wise pointed out that it was unlawful to make ‘invidious distinctions’ between humans based on something like religion and, therefore, that could be applied to chimpanzees and other animals.

Wise said that the scientific evidence was conclusive regarding humans and chimpanzees13:

“The science is making it very clear, that chimpanzees are us—they are very close to us—and they have the autonomy that judges care about.”14

It follows in evolutionary thinking that because we all come from a common ancestor and humans are not so special, that chimps should be afforded quasi-human rights.

Which is why Wise is so committed to his cause:

“The struggle to attain the personhood of such an extraordinarily cognitively complex nonhuman animal as a chimpanzee has barely begun.”15

On the other hand, if you understand that God created us in His image and distinct from animals over which we have dominion, then the case Wise is bringing is troubling if not unexpected.

It is symptomatic of the evolutionary indoctrination of our culture, which has also influenced judges to the point that at least one acknowledges that Wise has a point to his arguments. Fulton County Supreme Court Justice Joseph Sise is clearly impressed given these comments:

“I will be available as the judge for any other lawsuit to right any wrongs that are done to this chimpanzee because I understand what you’re saying. You make a very strong argument.”16
“Good luck with your venture. I’m sorry I can’t sign the order, but I hope you continue. As an animal lover, I appreciate your work.”17

As society continues to persuade itself that we are just evolved animals, that humans are not uniquely made in God’s image, then these developments should not surprise, sadly. We can expect, and are seeing, pressure in two directions. One is to elevate animals to have the rights and obligations of people. The other, long underway already in the form of abortion and euthanasia, is to downgrade the sanctity of human life. Tragically, many in the church remain blissfully unaware of such huge implications of this creation/evolution struggle.

Update June 2017: An appeals court in New York upheld a lower court ruling and said there was “no legal precedent for chimpanzees being considered people and their cognitive capabilities didn't mean they could be held legally accountable for their actions”.18

Published: 15 April 2014

References and notes

  1. Ape escape: the argument to keep chimpanzees out of cages, mobile.theverge.com, 29 January 2014. Return to text.
  2. Latin for “that you have the body”. Return to text.
  3. New York Cases – Judges’ Decisions and Next Steps, nonhumanrightsproject.org, 10 December 2013. Return to text.
  4. Ref. 1. Return to text.
  5. Ref. 3. Return to text.
  6. Ref. 1. Return to text.
  7. Beastly Behavior?; A Law Professor Says It’s Time to Extend Basic Rights to the Animal Kingdom, The Washington Post, 5 June 2002. Return to text.
  8. Wieland, C., Of lettuces and cow-humans, Creation 9(4):27–30, September 1987. Return to text.
  9. Singer, P., Taking Life: Humans, Practical Ethics, 2nd edition, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 175–217. Return to text.
  10. Ref. 1. Return to text.
  11. Ambler, M., Conservation and a biblical approach to nature, creation.com/conservation, 11 October 2012. Return to text.
  12. The Nonhuman Rights Project: The Struggle for Legal Personhood for Nonhuman Animals, ieet.org, 16 December, 2013. Return to text.
  13. In fact, the genetic closeness of chimps to humans has now been seen to have been grossly exaggerated—see creation.com/chimp. Return to text.
  14. Ref. 12. Return to text.
  15. Ref. 3. Return to text.
  16. Ref. 3. Return to text.
  17. Judge Rejects Habeas Petition for Tommy the Captive Chimpanzee, courthousenews.com, 23 December, 2013. Return to text.
  18. Hajela, D., Appeals court says chimpanzees don't have rights of people, abcnews.go.com, June 2017. Return to text.

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