Steven M. Wise, Nonhuman Rights Project


steven-wisePart II: Steven M. Wise, Nonhuman Rights Project
Steven M. Wise is President of the Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. He holds a J.D. from Boston University Law School and a B.S. in Chemistry from the College of William and Mary. He has practiced animal protection law for 30 years throughout the United States and is admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. Steve teaches “Animal Rights Jurisprudence” at the Vermont, Lewis and Clark, University of Miami, and St. Thomas Law Schools, and has taught “Animal Rights Law” at the Harvard Law School and John Marshall Law School. He is the author of four books:
* Rattling the Cage – Toward Legal Rights for Animals (2000),
* Drawing the Line – Science and the Case for Animal Rights (2003),
* Though the Heavens May Fall – The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery (2005), and
* An American Trilogy – Death, Slavery, and Dominion Along the Banks of the Cape Fear River (2009).
He is also working on a fifth, which will be a memoir about the Nonhuman Rights Project. He has authored numerous law review, encyclopedia, and popular articles. His work for the legal rights of nonhuman animals was highlighted on Dateline NBC and was the subject of the documentary, A Legal Person. He regularly travels the world lecturing on animal rights jurisprudence and the Nonhuman Rights Project, and is a frequent guest on television and radio discussing animal rights law and the Nonhuman Rights Project.


Caryn Hartglass: Hello, everybody; we are back. I’m Caryn Hartglass, and thanks for joining me today. My next guest is Steven Wise. He is the president of the Nonhuman Rights Project. He holds a JD from Boston University’s Law School and a BS in Chemistry from the College of William & Mary. He has practiced animal protection law for thirty years throughout the United States and is admitted to the Massachusetts bar, and we are going to be talking a lot more about all of that right now. Welcome, Steve Wise; thanks for being on the show again.

Steven Wise: Sure, thanks for having me.

Caryn Hartglass: I had you on about five years ago, and I have to tell you I was so moved and impressed with your book that came out back then, An American Trilogy, and I love that book. I read a lot of books. I interview a lot of authors, and that is my top all-time ten list. It was an incredible piece of work, and I am sure not enough people really know about it or appreciate it. But I tell everybody about it, and I loved what you were doing. Two of the things we want to focus on, one is: one of the things you’re doing in the book is connecting the dots between the way we treat humans and the way we treat animals. So maybe we can jump in right there and talk a little bit about that. I know a lot of people when I talk about-my focus is food, and I am always talking about eating plants and not animals-and a lot of responses are “Why don’t you care about humans?”

Steven Wise: I guess the way I would respond to that is of course I care about humans. Human rights are animal rights; so I’m not sure if I have ever run into an animal rights lawyer who doesn’t care about human rights. There’s nothing that we are going to get for animals, for nonhuman animals, that humans don’t already have. Part of my work has always been human rights work, as well as non-human rights work. I guess it’s hard for me sometimes to even understand the question, unless it is “Why don’t you spend all of your time just working for humans and none of your time working for nonhumans?” and for that I say there’s an awful lot of people working on human problems, working on how to solve human problems, working on human rights issues. There’s only a very small number of us, who are working for a much larger population of nonhuman animals.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s a reaction kind of statement when people don’t really know what they are talking about.

Steven Wise: Sometimes I then ask, “Exactly what do you do for humans?”, and usually I don’t find that they are doing too much.

Caryn Hartglass: Exactly. The other thing is we live in a hierarchical society, and when you want to get benefits for animals or, like in your book, An American Trilogy, you compared the way we treated human slaves in this country to the way we treat animals in that region in North Carolina, Tar Heel, and people get offended when you compare pigs with African-Americans.

Steven Wise: Well, I’m really comparing the way we treat those who are legal things, those who our legal system does not recognize as having the capacity for even a single legal right, and when we treat them as things, part of what happens is that they are seen as not existing for themselves, but are seen as existing solely for the sake of us legal persons who have the capacity of rights, and one of the rights we have is the right to own and control them. I am not comparing pigs to African American slaves. I am simply saying that there have been a lot of beings who have been within the category of legal things, and one by one Western law, certainly, has over the centuries begun to remove entities from the category of legal things, and one of the most prominent long struggles was the struggle for blacks, whether it was in the US or South America or England, and it was a long, long struggle of human slavery, and not just for blacks, black chattel slavery, but Arab slavery. You know, there are all sorts of slavery.

Caryn Hartglass: Women, for a long time, were considered as property, too.

Steven Wise: As were handicapped people, people who were deaf, children, and it is a long, long process, and it just so happens that there are a lot of long cases around the legal issue of black slaves, both in England and the US, where black slaves were once in the same place where nonhuman slaves are now, and so we look to that kind of law.

Caryn Hartglass: I think it was in the beginning of this year when your work came to my attention again. I was reading the New York Times, and I found out about the cases you have going on in New York, and I was so excited to read them. Let’s focus on that now. You are getting a lot of attention, and this is exciting work.

Steven Wise: Well, the Nonhuman Rights Project has been focusing on trying to figure out how to solve the problem of right now. All but only human beings are seen as legal persons, are seen as having the capacity for one or more legal rights, but on the other side of that wall is the rest of the animal creation. We think that is an entirely arbitrary line, that there are many nonhuman animals, and we are willing to have the courts deal with them one by one, but there are many nonhuman animals who we think are entitled to legal personhood, that is the capacity for one or more rights. We would like to be able to struggle to find out which rights, courts and others think that different sorts of nonhuman animals should have, and it all depends upon what sort of being each kind of animal is. The Nonhuman Rights project has now spent, we estimate, about thirty thousand hours preparing for these first cases of 2007 until 2013, and we filed three requests that judges issue writs of habeas corpus in the lowest courts of New York, which are the Supreme Courts, on behalf of four captive chimpanzees, who were all the chimpanzees that were still alive, as far as we knew, within the state of New York. When we decided to file suit on behalf of chimpanzees in New York, in March of 2013, there were seven of them, and three of them died just in the nine months before we were able to file our first suit in December, 2013. What we have been doing, is the courts refused to issue the writs of habeas corpus, which is what we expected they would do. We thought we ought to file the case in the lower courts and then begin to move our way through the Appellate courts of New York and begin to introduce the Appellate judges of New York and also the public and the judges and the lawyers and the legal profession throughout the United States and throughout the world to the arguments that we are making, which we think are very powerful, and you can see them. We post all of our legal papers and the judicial decisions on our website, which is on You can see the petition for the writ of habeas corpus that we filed. You can see that we filed a hundred pages of affidavits of nine very well respected ape cognition experts from all over the world from Japan and Sweden and Germany and Scotland and England and the US. You can see the 80-page memorandum of law we filed in each case. You can see transcripts of the argument we made in court. You can see what the judges did, what our briefs were in the appellate courts; you can kind of follow the whole process along with us.

Caryn Hartglass: Now for us laymen folks out here, habeas corpus is getting relief from unlawful imprisonment.

Steven Wise: Yes, habeas corpus really means produce body, and it is oftentimes called the great writ. It is seen as the most fundamental sort of right that we have, which is the right to bodily liberty, because, we argue, that is a protection of our autonomy, that the autonomy really lies at the basis of our personhood and as well as bodily liberty. So, when someone is unlawfully imprisoned, you can use the common law, and sometimes the statutory, a writ of habeas corpus to make the person who is imprisoning you produce your body and give a legally sufficient reason for imprisoning you, and that is what we have done on behalf of all the chimpanzees. The book that I wrote before An American Trilogy, was called Though the Heavens May Fall, and it was really part of the work that I was doing for the Nonhuman Rights project. It told the story of a black slave named James Somerset, who would been kidnapped in Africa, sold as a slave in Virginia and eventually taken to London, and in the very widely publicized case in which his lawyers had brought a common-law writ of habeas corpus on his behalf, Lord Mansfield, who was Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench in London, finally ruled that slavery was so odious that the common law would not support it and ordered him free. That book, Though the Heavens May Fall, was really a blueprint for what the Nonhuman Rights Project was already working on and a metaphor as well.

Caryn Hartglass: I love what you are doing, but I can imagine what judges are thinking when they see this come across their desk, “What am I going to do with this?” I want you to be successful, but when you are successful, what does that mean for chimpanzees and other animals?

Steven Wise: I think the first time that we will be successful, and we will; we don’t know whether it is going to be these first cases, or it is going to be the fifth or tenth or a hundredth, we simply don’t know, but we think our arguments are very powerful and that it is almost impossible to rule against us without being rather arbitrary and without undermining the values that the judges say that they indeed believe in. So we also understand that it is a novel issue, and that many judges will not have ever thought about this, and we need to have them be able to take the time to really think about it, to test our arguments, to discuss them, to give people chances to write law review articles, to have what we are doing taught in law schools, and we understand that judges may not want to stick their neck out for the first time, or the fifth time, or the tenth time. But eventually they will see that we are making arguments from justice, and that these sorts of arguments have been made before and successfully, and there is no reason why this line that separates all humans from all nonhumans should be where it is, and it needs to be moved, and we begin to need to litigate where that line should be, even temporarily, which animals based on current scientific knowledge ought to be legal persons with the capacity to have one or more rights, and that is really the first step in what is going to be a long struggle. So for me, I’ve been working for twenty nine years just to prepare for the first step and it has taken a long, long time, but I think the world is ready now to take the first step. I think we have thought about the issue, debated the issue thoroughly, researched the issue and although it took us a long, long time, we now think we are ready to go, and we have already taken the first steps in what is going to be a long, strategic litigation campaign.

Caryn Hartglass: So what would we not be able to do with chimpanzees that we are doing today?

Steven Wise: Well, if you are a legal person that means you have the capacity for one or more rights, so the question is which rights then are going to be recognized. So the one that we are looking to is bodily liberty, that you could not imprison a chimpanzee. If a judge recognized that a chimpanzee, because she is an autonomous being, has a fundamental right to bodily liberty, and in the way that we do, then you could no more imprison her than you can imprison me.

Caryn Hartglass: So that means no vivisection on chimpanzees.

Steven Wise: Unless you could do it without imprisoning them. Bodily integrity is another issue, but I think it is a closely related one. I think essentially the chimpanzees would be moved to a sanctuary in which they would be able to live out the rest of their lives with other chimpanzees in a way that approximates as best as we could the way they would be living in the wild in Africa. So part of our case was to bring in the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, which has a series of sanctuaries. They all agreed that any chimpanzees who were freed pursuant to our writ of habeas corpus would then be evaluated by the folks at the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance and then placed in the appropriate sanctuary where they would live out the rest of their lives with other chimpanzees in the best possible way for each of them.

Caryn Hartglass: Now I’m sure people are thinking “Okay, we give chimpanzees their rights, you are opening a can of worms, who is next after that?”

Steven Wise: Well, we are about ready to file a suit on behalf of elephants.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh, they need so much help, before they are extinct.

Steven Wise: Elephants are next. We are looking at this, let me see how the best way of explaining this is, it is that our argument is that autonomy is a fundamental value in Western law, and the reason that we think it is, is that judges say it is and legislatures say it is, and people who write treaties say it is. So what we are saying is that we believe what you are telling us, that the protection of autonomy is a supreme value in Western law. Now we are going to show you some nonhuman animals who have autonomy, and they should be also protected in the same way we are. Right now, we know that the scientific evidence shows that all four species of apes are, bonobos and chimpanzees and orangutans and gorillas, that the two species of elephants are, African and Asian, that certain cetaceans are, orcas, other whales and dolphins, perhaps such animals as African Gray Parrots, and we say you have to follow the science. Before we ever file a lawsuit we bring in, as we did in the chimpanzee cases, there we brought in a hundred pages of affidavits setting out what the latest science is showing, that these chimpanzees are indeed autonomous, and we are going to do the same for elephants, we’d do the same thing for orcas, and then that’s where it goes. We are beginning, at least, with those animals that we think that we have very strong scientific evidence that they are autonomous things and that their autonomy should therefore be protected.

Caryn Hartglass: How did you choose New York?

Steven Wise: We spent six years going through; we came up with about sixty different legal issues, and we ran them through all fifty states. So we had to make about three thousand separate legal judgments as to how we might rank the states on each of the legal issues, and then we sat back and looked at all of them and in October or November, 2012 we narrowed it down to either six or ten, and then we met on Easter day in 2013, and we narrowed those down to one. I think there are five or six that we feel are very close to each other, and New York for one reason or another, we thought was going to be the best. One thing also is once we narrowed the states down, we then turned to our science folks and asked, “Which of these kinds of animals actually live there? Are there chimpanzees here, are there apes in these states, are there elephants in these states are there cetaceans in these states?” So we thought we wanted to begin with the chimpanzees, and there were some states that we were very interested in that simply didn’t have any captive chimpanzees, so we decided to hold them back for orcas or elephants or something like that. So New York was potentially the most favorable state that had chimpanzees.

Caryn Hartglass: Yay, New York. Well, I hope they act fast and act on the right side.

Steven Wise: Well we want them to act on the right side; we don’t care so much about speed right now. I’ve been in this for a long, almost thirty years I’ve been preparing for this, in order to just get the first suit filed, and now we know we are on a decades long struggle afterwards. But we are pushing as hard as we can, as much money as we can raise, we are then using it to . . .

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, that was my next question. Who is funding this? This is a tremendous amount of work.

Steven Wise: Well, we have to get to donors who will give us money for staff attorneys, for office help, for fundraisers, for social media folks, for science folks, so we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, and we are filing those suits that we think we can afford, and as more money comes in, we bring more people on. What really helped, I don’t know if you are even aware of it, but we were the cover story for the Sunday New York Times magazine on April 27th, so that brought us a huge amount of attention worldwide, and it still is.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s great.

Steven Wise: One of the things that donors are coming forward and saying is, “I didn’t know you existed. What can we do for you?” Well I know what you can do for us; and I go up and give them our budget and say would you like to fund this position or that position. We can file these suits or those suits. So that is what we do. We are a 501(c)(3). We ask people who believe in what we are doing and think that we are competent to give us the funds to do our job.

Caryn Hartglass: That is great, and the last thing I wanted to ask you or talk about is you are flying all around the world, teaching young lawyers about animal law.

Steven Wise: I am doing that. Not only am I teaching young lawyers, but the Nonhuman Rights Project is also reaching out to legal organizations and lawyers right now in seven other countries, and we are trying to work with them so that they can do the same or similar things as we are doing in the United States, in their countries. So we are working with folks, and I visit all these folks, and I give talks there, in Brazil and Argentina and Spain and Portugal, in the UK, in France, and Switzerland. So I have been spending a lot of time going back and forth, back and forth. I also teach there as well. In fact, I am leaving for Barcelona, Spain tomorrow afternoon, and I was just there five weeks ago.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s a long trip.

Steven Wise: I know, and when I come back, then I’m going to Sweden three weeks after that. I think in the span of four months I am taking four trips to Europe and two to South America.

Caryn Hartglass: The good news is that you are planting seeds, and people are nourishing them so that they can grow.

Steven Wise: They are very interested all over the world in what we are doing, and they are inviting us to come. When we tell them that we would like to work with them to try to reproduce the same thing in their country, they are leaping at the opportunity, and we are very, very pleased.

Caryn Hartglass: I was so excited to see you in the New York Times, and I am glad that they printed it, because they don’t print a lot of things that I like.

Steven Wise: Well, Charles Siebert, who you know wrote the article, did a fantastic job. He worked on it for two or three years, and we also have a film coming out in 2015. D.A. Pennebaker, who won a Lifetime Oscar in 2012, and his wife and fellow filmmaker Chris Hegedus, have been following us around for three years. They have had complete access to everything that we do; whenever they want to film us they do, and all of those hundreds and hundreds of hours of film is going to be boiled down to a ninety minute or so film that should come out sometime in 2015.

Caryn Hartglass: That is good news. I am sure it will be very, very powerful.

Steven Wise: They are going to have to Photoshop me in there.

Caryn Hartglass: I’m glad you still have a sense of humor because you have been working for decades doing some very difficult work that moves very slowly, unfortunately.

Steven Wise: It has now begun to move a lot faster than it ever used to.

Caryn Hartglass: Let’s see some great action in New York. I can’t wait to read.

Steven Wise: Thank you for helping us spread the word, I appreciate it very much.

Caryn Hartglass: You’re welcome Steve. Keep doing it.

Steven Wise: Okay.

Caryn Hartglass: Thanks for joining me, and all of the best.

Steven Wise: Okay, okay, bye.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, bye. That’s all for this week. Have a very delicious week. I’m Caryn Hartglass, and this has been It’s All About Food. Bye bye.

Transcribed by Tre Le 7/18/2014 edited by Rebeka Putera 8/11/2014

  5 comments for “Steven M. Wise, Nonhuman Rights Project

  1. I am keen to do whatever I can to help this project. It is essential that nonhuman animals have much greater legal recognition and rights. I reside in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. I am a supporter of Animals Australia, Animals Asia, PETA, 4Paws, the RSPCA, the Animal Welfare League, Animal Liberation and Voiceless. For many years, I have commenced each day with the fervent prayer that nonhuman animals will be freed from enslavement by humans.Please contact me if I can do anything to assist or promote this project.

  2. Hello Steven, I heard your interview on NPR, and I am so grateful to you for dedicating your life to this extraordinary endeavor. Your work to reshape legislation with the concept of animals with “person” rights is so unique and necessary to move past humane treatment to a vision that treats all living creatures with respect and conscience. I am beyond thrilled to know of your work and organization. Thank you.

  3. Hello Steven, Are you on Facebook? There is a Steven M. Wise with your photos on Facebook who told me that he thinks my petition for personhood rights is meaningless. It can not possibly have been the real person saying that. Just wanted to mention this and if it is you on Facebook then would it be possible to explain why my petition could not work. Thank you so much for your great work I’m a huge fan. Nicki

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