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Further Reading


Grasping for Air

Steven Wise & the Nonhuman Rights Project

by Terrell Clemmons


As a young law school graduate in 1980, Steven Wise read Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, by Peter Singer, which said that animals were being harmed in many ways. Wise was troubled by this and decided to practice law for the interests of animals. He started out working for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, but came to believe that litigating for improved treatment of animals wasn't enough. The real problem, in his mind, was that animals were thought of as "things," rather than "persons." Only persons had legal standing in courts of law.

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 42

So he shifted focus to a longer-term campaign to have nonhuman animals be seen as persons. He studied the history of political thought on rights (who gets them and how), wrote several law review articles and a few books, and taught animal rights law in law school. Then, in 1995, he founded the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP).

The NhRP's primary focus is targeted litigation. Its current client list consists of four chimpanzees for whom it seeks writs of habeas corpus in order to obtain "bodily liberty," which effectively translates into the right not to be held in captivity, which Wise equates to slavery. Prospective clients under consideration include great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales.

Reason for Surveillance:

NhRP cases are not about violations of animal welfare laws. Wise is explicitly clear that animal welfare is not his concern. Rather, he asserts that his clients are self-aware, that they have their own cultures and theory of mind, and that American courts owe them "recognition of common law personhood and fundamental rights." He says it's something like "legal transubstantiation."

What the NhRP is really about, then, is changing the way people think about humans, animals, and rights. Wise points out that in India, certain temples, mosques, and religious books are now persons. In New Zealand, a river has been declared a person. "So it's about trying to get judges to stop thinking that all humans are persons and all persons are humans." One reporter asked if all nonhuman animals are persons. What about every gnat, fly, and cockroach? he wondered. Wise gave no answer.

Indeed, the sky doesn't even seem to be the limit. "The trend towards environmental legal personality is meaningful and real," wrote NhRP Executive Director Kevin Schneider about recognition being extended to, among other things, air.

You read that right. Air.

Most Recent Absurdity:

To be fair, categorical freefall aside, Wise isn't wasting breath defending the right of air not to be breathed. But he is attempting to undo centuries of Western jurisprudence, under which human rights have been recognized based on the understanding that human beings were created by God and bear his image. Conversely, NhRP campaigns fundamentally redefine the meaning of personhood in a way that might as well include air.

In April 2017, the NhRP filed a motion to change the definition of "person" in the widely recognized authority on legal language and usage, Black's Law Dictionary, from a being capable of bearing "rights and duties" to one capable of bearing "rights or duties."

This one little word change brings with it existential and civilizational implications. Given that "nonhuman rights" effectively means conferring rights upon all things not human, what the NhRP is espousing is the granting of "rights" to all without necessarily expecting responsibility or duties from any.

This would include the duty to actually recognize rights. Apparently, it hasn't occurred to Mr. Wise that his legal machinations undercut the very concept of rights altogether. Hopefully, wiser heads will prevail.

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