What are the legal rights of a human medical subject? Can we experiment on them against their will? Can we remove their organs without their consent? Can we force them to endure painful medical procedures for the greater good? The answer is, of course, no. But what if instead this subject is a chimpanzee—an animal with incredible cognitive ability that is intelligent, numerate, social, has moral capacity, culture and can engage in language? According to current law, we can easily do all of the above —and more. Currently our laws treat animals as legal things. They do not have rights. In fact, we do not even recognise them as having capacity for rights. No matter their intelligence, self-awareness or autonomy, their bodies—no matter what we inflict on them—are owned.
We give animals no more rights than we would a car, a television or a pencil. This is in direct opposition to how humans are treated. Granted legal personhood, they do have rights and their autonomy is recognised under law. They are allowed to make their own choices and exercise control over their own bodies. And just to be clear, legal personhood is not limited to human beings. Corporations, religions, religious artefacts and rivers are just some of the entities that have been granted legal personhood. All have more rights than animals and, because of this, we continue to enslave and imprison autonomous and defenceless beings—but maybe not for much longer.
In 1996 animal rights lawyer Steven Wise launched the Nonhuman Rights Project, with the aim of granting legal personhood to non-human animals. Using a civil rights framework and rigorous scientific evidence, Wise and his team have already launched legal proceedings for eight animals, with courts and legislatures across the world beginning to recognise and act upon the systemic problem of animals being denied legal rights. The ball started rolling with the Nonhuman Rights Project securing the world's first habeas corpus hearings on behalf of chimpanzees and elephants. This centuries-old method of testing the lawfulness of imprisonment has—for the first time in global legal history—allowed arguments supporting the legal personhood and right to bodily liberty for animals to be heard in a court of law. Currently Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project are representing chimpanzees Tommy, Kiko, Hercules and Leo and elephants Beulah, Karen, Minnie and Happy. While their cases are ongoing, the results of this litigation has inspired international legal change:
In 2015 Sandra the Orangutan was released from solitary confinement at Buenos Aires Zoo after a judge ruled that she was legally not an animal but a non-human person who has rights. In 2016 an Argentinian judge released Cecilia the chimpanzee from solitary confinement following legal action based on the Nonhuman Rights Project's petitions. Last year Pakistan's high court used the Nonhuman Rights Project's cases to affirm the rights of non-human animals and release an elephant named Kaavan being held in solitary confinement. It is clear that across the world, the incredible work of the Nonhuman Rights Project is changing the conversation about recognising the rights of other species under law.
This change is critical. Rights are critical, because our laws are failing animals by working to regulate the manner in which they are treated, while exclusively prioritising the interests of humans and human institutions. The interests and experiences of these intelligent, sentient beings should not be secondary. All of human history shows that the only way to truly protect fundamental interests is to recognise rights—rights that protect against wrongs our society has deemed intolerable and unjustifiable, wrongs such as detaining individuals against their will without sufficient cause or subjecting them to mental or physical torture. These wrongs are experienced equally for humans and non-human animals alike. Thanks to the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project and Steven Wise, they are moving toward being treated as such.