Do animals have legal rights?

Dear EarthTalk: What are so-called non-human rights?  
Richard Montcalm, Jenkintown, PA
 dot trans Do animals have legal rights?                      

Non-human rights is a term coined by animal welfare activist and lawyer Steven Wise, who has campaigned for three decades to achieve actual legal rights for members of species other than our own. His organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), is working “to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere ‘things’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.”

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Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project is using the legal system to establish a precedent for animal rights, first for chimpanzees and eventually for other animal species. Credit: Patrick Bouquet, FlickrCC

According to NhRP, nonhuman animals are still considered property in the eyes of the law. Even those animals that we know possess feelings, emotions and higher forms of intelligence—great apes, elephants, dolphins, whales—have no more legal standing than a shoe, a table or a car.

“These are complex animals who have deep emotions, understand each other’s minds, live in complicated societies, transmit culture, use sophisticated communication, solve difficult problems, and even mourn the loss of their loved ones,” reports the group. “Just like humans.”

“But they are still considered property, poached and taken from their natural habitat, separated and held against their will, subjected to cruel experimentation, exploited for entertainment, sold on the black market, used, abused and treated like objects for our amusement and financial gain,” says NhRP, adding that such experiences can scar animals for life. “Yet the law affords them no rights, allowing humans to do with them whatever we want.”

Wise and company would like to see animals who are confined for use in research or entertainment have the opportunity to live out their days in a wildlife sanctuary with a hospitable climate where they can enjoy “bodily liberty” to pursue their free will. NhRP is working to first establish a legal precedent that nonhumans can have legal rights in the U.S. judicial system. The organization filed its first cases in New York State in December 2013 representing four individual chimpanzees being used in research labs and for entertainment purposes, and hopes to expand its caseload to other nonhuman species in the near future.

In the meantime, NhRP is looking for the help of volunteer lawyers, scientists, mathematicians and predictive analysis professionals interested in lending their expertise to the fight for recognizing the legal rights of nonhumans.

“Over the coming years, we will be filing as many cases as we can afford, so contributions are very important, too,” reports the group. “We also need funds to help establish sanctuaries for the animals we’re working to free from captivity.”

Why should we care that animals have legal rights too? Steven Wise is fond of quoting Abraham Lincoln, who said: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.” If we don’t want to live in a world where humans are enslaved, why should we tolerate similar treatment of our closest animal relatives and other sentient beings great and small? Whether or not the chimps he is fighting for ever get to a sanctuary, Steven Wise will forever go down in history as the Abraham Lincoln of the non-human rights movement.

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