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Activist challenges judges to redefine chimpanzees’ legal status

Animal rights lawyer Steven Wise courts controversy


Published: 15 April 2014 (GMT+10)
morgueFile.com/hotblack 9447-chimp
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

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.

Readers’ comments

Dave P.
Man being created with moral "human" qualities such as love, justice and a quest for spiritual knowledge (Col 3:10) is distinctly different than anything found in the animal kingdom. Laws that give any animal the same of rights as a human is dehumanizing to mankind and a discredit to our Creator.
Darwinian/Malthusian ideologist keep croaking these demon inspired notions to further alienate our culture from the truth. (Revelation 16:14)
R. D.
Despite the stupidity involved with the attempts to bring ape rights up to the level of humans (though I agree with the commentators who point-out that there are still plenty of barbarous practices which humans enforce on our fellow nephesh chayyah which I've no doubt that God is quite disgusted with and which absolutely do need to be stopped), I certainly see an opportunity here.

If these campaigns are successful, the likes of Peter Singer are exposed even more as the hypocrites they are for the fact that they champion animal rights so fervently but simultaneously attempt to downgrade human rights. Perhaps, ultimately, these cases might help to shine the light on the barbarity of antenatal (and postnatal) infanticide in humans. Since logical consistency isn't these people's strong point, they're unlikely to spot the Trojan-horse of their own making involved and, ultimately, might bring their own house down.
Martin K.
Very good comments already here. I am reminded of a toxicology seminar I attended about 20 years ago. During the question period the speaker explained exactly why most drugs in Canada needed two animal species tested. He said that in the late 60's only one species (rats) were used to verify the safety of thalidomide. The baby mutations that followed forced people to re-examine the testing protocols to discover how they missed the problem. During this they retested rats and rabbits for fetal mutations. Then they discovered how important it was to have more than one species tested and the value of animal testing.
I fully realize how horrific it sounds to test new drugs on animals but we as society must be mindful of safety and the future of our children and the welfare of animals. With wisdom and a strong character I do believe we can accomplish medical testing and uphold good animal welfare at the same time. I know that this is difficult to do but we have to try to reach a compromise.
There is only one species on this planet that can fulfill the role as steward of the planet and all its creatures. The chimp can't. Only we can and I believe we need a strong creationist foundation to accomplish this.
David C.
Here's a question I would like to see the "animal rights" movement answer: If I cannot legally force you to recognize an unborn child as a person, how can you legally force me to recognize an ape as a person?
Peter W.
“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.”

Pardon my confusion, but isn't the autonomy spoken of here, the autonomy to hire a lawyer on contract to plead or defend a case?
I'm in agreement with commenter "James O" on this one- let the plaintiff speak for himself if this is something important to him or her.

Fundamentally, animals can NOT have rights because they are incapable of granting rights to others. Rights and responsibilities are inseparable.
Gerry T.
It would be interesting to watch Steven wise present a lecture on the cognitive complexity of a Grizzly Bear and how it makes them the equal of man, as he stands between a female and her new born cubs. I can guarantee it wouldl be the last lecture he gives.

As for Wise's belief that there is no difference between a chimpanzee and his 41/2 year old son, what does that say of Wise in regards to his qualities as a father?

And finally, Romans 1:22 springs to mind, "Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools." Steven Wise, how's that for a misnomer?
Naomi S.
Look we shouldn't be experimenting on the big chimps anyway. The Bible says the righteous man regardeth the life of his beast and we are certainly told to have regard to the emotional life of animals in that we are not supposed to take eggs from the mother bird whilst she is watching. To keep these highly intelligent animals in cages and to experiment on them day after day is literally to torture them and to have no regard for either their physical or emotional health. Its totally unacceptable and the sooner it is brought to an end the better - on the basis of mercy and Christian/Judaic principles, not evolution. It IS a shame to Christians that an atheist is bringing this court case. At one time Christians were at the forefront of humanitarian movements, as is remarked in this article. Its time we widened our hatred of abortion to include ethical choices in other areas. The only worrying thing I see here is whether human life will be further down-graded so as to give a legal basis for euthanasia and infanticide.
Sean S.
Romans 1:25 says "Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator," They prove this in their arguments. They are willing to trample on rights and responsibilities given by God to humans and give them to animals instead. Satan has long been twisting what God has set forth all in defiance of the Creator. In the end, God will still rule and his enemies will be defeated.
Bob S.
As the Nye-Ham debate made clear, the argument for big-bang-billions-of-years-molecules-to-man naturalism requires that the logic be built on rationalized assumptions. If you define logic as allowing assumptions, then you can "logically prove" anything. Anything!
King T.
In view of Psalm 14:1, Steven Wise has a really ironic last name.
In view of Romans 1:18-24, he'll most probably succeed in his quest.
Ian and Heather H.
Wise claims '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'.
I hope his sympathy and time is spent campaigning for the unborn child who shares 100% genetic closeness to him as opposed to human–chimp genome similarity of not more than ~87% identical, and possibly not higher than 81%. http://creation.com/human-chimp-dna-similarity-re-evaluated.
john P.
Evolutionists like Singer and Wise, engaging in animal worship and holding the sanctity of human life in contempt shows that people don't believe in nothing, unbelievers like them believe anything- which can make them dangerous.Chimps are wild animals-they can be dangerous. Humans and primates such as chimps are not "cousins" at all, just that God used a superficially similar design- we have dominion over animals, not the other way around as these two evolutionists would envisage. Besides they disqualify themselves of any vestige of morality or immorality because of their religion/worldview, which stipulates that the only "absolute" is that there are none. It will not be pleasant for them to realise how wrong they are the other side of eternity. Unfortunately they drag others with them- even the elect can be led astray- which is why CMI's ministry is so important - we can warn people. Our churches need to make a stand now!
Michael W.
The solution is simple; have the chimps put forward their best and brightest as a representative to argue their case.
Robert B.
It's interesting that the answer to many of the thorniest controversies involves confronting the hard-edged philosophic realities of the I Am. This phenomena is so illusive and difficult to comprehend that it has been given the name of "The Hard Problem of Consciousness".

I feel the terms consciousness, sentience, being, or even self awareness are ambiguous and less meaningful than the term "I Am". "I Am" focuses our attention on the fact that we are talking about more than just a phenomenon but a "Who" or person.

I would support the recognition of the rights any creature that possessed an I Am. Toward that end, society should undertake a crash R&D effort to determine the exact mechanism of the "I Am" as means to know whether or not an "I Am" is present in any candidate organism.

Without that understanding , it would be arrogant and irresponsible to risk harming living beings through ignorance. To be consistent, society should place a moratorium on all porpoise and ape killing and also human abortions until we can state without doubt that we have the I Am figured out. If we can state with certainty that there is no I Am in an organism, then there is no person for the law to protect.

If the mechanism of the "I Am" can't be figured out; then that should give us pause because we might be dealing with a miracle. I suspect the unborn have a more real sense of self than the average adult. Their ability to remember may be undeveloped but they may still be intensely alive in the most important sense. They may have an "I Am" of monumental proportions.
Don M.
So when chimps and others become "human" legally we can then euthanize them, perform abortions, send them to war, try new medicines on them, all with their permission of course. Or maybe not, let's draft them for the final war!

Evolution is making our world madder each day.
Marc K.
Logic only carries these people’s arguments so far. Ultimately it rides on their irrational religious belief i.e. evolution and materialism. However, it’s worth mentioning there always is something fundamental missing from their arguments, namely, why something’s having “complex” cognition necessarily (i.e. deductively) means it’s immoral to kill that thing. Their argument begs the question of it being immoral. They assume you can effortlessly move from the empirical observation a chimp has “complex” cognition and someone’s taking its life, to the metaphysical conclusion that this killing is immoral. David Hume called this the ‘is-ought fallacy’ and yet, ironically, evolutionists routinely commit it. (Ironic because evolutionists love to quote Hume as a defender of their disbelief in God and miracles.)
No matter how evolutionists attempt justification, their ethical claim can never escape this fallacy’s clutches. For example, they point to an ape’s ability to “communicate”, be “human-like” or have genetic similarity to humans, but these are all descriptive, not prescriptive, statements. The evolutionists’ problem is to present a logically water-tight prescriptive case. Their confidence trick is they smuggle in question-begging moral terminology, attach it to a description of what apes are capable of, and then pass this off as a valid prescriptive argument. I could just as easily say computers think and speak like humans and therefore throwing an old computer out is immoral.
The problem for the evolutionist is how to extract essential immaterial qualities – in this case morality - from a materialist worldview. We creationists have been put on hold for millennia and are waiting for their answer.
James O.
I agree, let the chimpanzee stand in the dock and present its case....

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