Sunday, July 5, 2015
Nonhuman Rights Project Represents Nonhuman "Persons"
The Nonhuman Rights Project is a nonprofit organization holding this in its mission
“Our mission is 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.”
Historically animals, since they are viewed as “things,” have had no rights. Animal welfare laws as we know them have been largely born out of the rights of humans, namely, the right to not have to witness or tolerate animal cruelty or suffering.
Founded by attorney and law professor, Steven Wise, the Nonhuman Rights Project seeks to change that. In an April 2014 cover story entitled “Should A Chimp Be Able To Sue Its Owner?” the New York Times Magazine reported that Wise started with his mission back in 1981 after he read the seminal book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. However, only now, starting in late 2013 has he, with the backing of the NhPP and others, begun filing habeas corpus lawsuits, with animals as plaintiffs and their captors as defendants. A habeas corpus – literally meaning “you have the body” – is a proceeding which simply seeks to release the plaintiff from unlawful restraint.
The first habeas corpus court cases have as their plaintiffs chimps by the names of Kiko, Hercules and Leo, all of whom are in captivity in New York state, including two of whom are research animals at Stony Brook University. All of the suits brought in December 2013 have been dismissed because – no surprise – each of the state court judges hearing these cases has decided that New York law does not recognize the standing of a petitioner who claims to possess “nonhuman personhood.” This conclusion was reached in the face of papers filed by the plaintiffs setting forth in elaborate detail, with world-class experts, the ability of the petitioners to know their past and contemplate their future, among other cognitive and emotional attributes.
I was aware of Steven Wise’s studies and teachings when I wrote The Hot Monkey Love Trial. I read his book Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals, published in 2000. It was about the only book to be found that discussed the notion of animals capable of being treated as legal “persons,” and I used it for historical facts and to better understand the line our laws have drawn between a living nonhuman being, seen as having no rights, and a human being with rights.
But is there really anything shared in common between these habeas court cases brought by plaintiffs, claiming to be nonhuman persons, and The Hot Monkey Love Trial? After all, one is very real; one is fiction. One is a very serious matter; one is intended to be mostly comic. One raises the question: Should a monkey – with stunning cognitive powers and the ability to communicate, even empathize with other animals, including humans – have a right to personal liberty upon petition to a court where there’s proof of pervasive bondage, cruelty, and suffering? On the other hand, the novel asks: Can someone who is part genetically nonhuman – that is, whose genome contains genetic material that is unique to monkeys – be deemed a person who can be held accountable for crimes? Isn’t the answer to both yes? Or stated differently, it takes twisting of common sense, if not the wrong kind of blind justice – one tragically and ironically pigheaded and one comically absurd – to answer both questions no.
The Court granted a habeas corpus hearing – something that to date has only been granted to full-fledged humans – and the hearing was held on May 27 ,2015. Stay tuned for more on the cases filed, now on appeal, and this fascinating and developing area of law.