Granting certain animal species the rights of “legal persons” may sound farfetched, but for the Nonhuman Rights Project, it’s a legal battle that is both a full-time mission and one they think has precedent. “A legal person is someone or some entity that has the capacity for legal right. It could be a corporation, it could be a human being, it could be a ship,” the organization’s president Steven Wise told MetroFocus guest host Jack Ford.
Wise cited examples from other nations that had found certain non-humans to be persons. “There’s a Pakistani court that said that a mosque was a legal person, the Indian supreme court has held up the holy books of the Sikh religion as a legal person and in 2012 the crown of New Zealand entered into a treaty with its indigenous peoples and they agreed that a river was a legal person,” Wise said. ” So legal person means that you count in a courtroom. You’re not invisible to the judges.”
Wise emphasized that legal person is not synonymous with human being.
“If any entity, whether she’s a chimpanzee or a human being is autonomous, that should be enough to make her a legal person,” Wise said. He described autonomy as the capacity to self-determine instead of operate by instinct. The Nonhuman Rights Project has chosen to
advocate for legal personhood for three groups of animals: great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas), cetaceans (orcas, dolphins, whales) and African and Asian elephants after interviewing animal science experts from around the world.
So far, the group has filed suit on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York State. If they succeed, the chimps will live out the rest of their lives at sanctuaries. Wise said that the lawsuits
are necessary because, despite the many laws already on the books to protect animals, things like solitary confinement and medical experimentation are still allowed.
The original requests for writs of habeas corpus for the captive chimpanzees were denied by lower courts. The Nonhuman Rights Project has filed notices of appeal in each case and has vowed to continue appealing future denials to the highest level possible. “…as public morality changes, as our experience changes, as scientific evidence accretes,” the law should change too, said Wise.