Steven M. Wise, Nonhuman Rights Project, Expanding Mission and Work Beyond the Courtroom


steve-wiseSteven 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.

Since 2009, It’s All About Food, has been bringing you the best in up-to-date news regarding food and our food system. Hosted by Caryn Hartglass, a vegan since 1988, the program includes in-depth interviews with medical doctors; nutritionists; dieticians; cook book authors; athletes; environmental, animals and health activists; farmers; food manufacturers; lawyers; food scientists and more. Learn about how we can solve many of the world’s problems today and do it deliciously, here on It’s All About Food.


Caryn Hartglass: Hi Everybody! We’re back, I’m Caryn Hartglass, thanks for joining me for the second part of today’s program and I want to get right to it with my guest Steven M. Wise. He is the President of the Nonhuman Rights Project. He holds a JD from Boston University Law School and a BSc 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 in the St Thomas Law Schools and he has taught animal rights law at the Harvard Law School and John Marshalls Law School. He’s the author of four books; Rattling the Cage, Drawing the Lines, Through the Heavens May Fall,” and my favorite An American Trilogy: Death, Slavery, and Dominion along the Banks of the Cape Fear River. He’s also working on a fifth, which would be a memoir about the non-human rights project. Welcome to It’s All About Food Steven, how are you today?

Steven Wise: I’m doing fine, thank you for having me on.

Caryn Hartglass: You’re welcome and I hope you had a very Happy Birthday yesterday!

Steven Wise: I did, yes! Thank you, Thank you.

Caryn Hartglass: It was an odd day for us with this strange bit of hope that the Electoral College would turn a different way but it didn’t, but aside from that we have much work to do so I had the opportunity to meet you a few weeks ago you were speaking in Brooklyn.

Steven Wise: Yes.

Caryn Hartglass: It was great to hear you in person, I want to; what impressed me the most; I don’t know why I just realized it at that point of time when you were speaking but how you are working to move the law in such a tiny increment and I was just fascinated by that and your approach and your patience. Can you talk a little about that work?

Steven Wise: Yea, sure indeed I do have a lot of patience I’m very persistent; I had begun working as an animal protection lawyer in 1980 and 1981 and I began working with what became the Animal Legal Defense Fund and I became president for 10 years and by 1985, 1986 I’d been persuaded that it was a real problem with respect to how the law dealt with non-human animals but the law saw them all as legal things which means that they lack the capacity to have any kind of legal rights as opposed to legal person which is the capacity to have at least some legal rights and until non-human animals were seen as persons they could be expected to be treated just like human beings treat all their other property they don’t act in the interest of their property they act in their own interest and essentially a person is the master of things; things are slaves to us persons and so I began to plan how we would begin to move at least some non-human animals from the legal category of things again who lack the capacity for any kind of legal rights to legal persons who have the capacity for at least some and the ones we are looking for are those that protect the most fundamental interests and at that time I thought that it would take 1985,86; I thought it would take about 30 years of preparation before we were able to file that first lawsuits that had some kind of reasonable chance of success and there was so much to do because if you go back to 1985 there was very little talk of animal rights in any kind of technical or legal way. There weren’t very many lawyers, there were no casebooks, there were no law schools who taught it there were no law review articles about it there were no organizations except the animal legal defense fund and also the world was in a very different place with respect to non-human animals and so all together I figured it would take probably 30 years before the world had turned and we had prepared for those kinds of cases and it did indeed take 28 years.

Caryn Hartglass: Wow!

Steven Wise: 1985 was when I began and then the non-human rights project began filing its first series of lawsuits on behalf of chimpanzees in the state of New York habeas corpus lawsuits in December of 2013

Caryn Hartglass: Hmmm; that’s a lot of patience and a lot of wonderful foresight so thank you for getting started that so long ago

Steven Wise: Well, there is a film out about us it’s called “Unlocking the Cage” by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker which actually is going to be on HBO on February 20th so Presidents Day.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh.

Steven Wise: I remember going in and speaking with them about whether (and they are trying to figure out where they are going to shoot the film) they wanted to see me and I thought they probably want to see whether I’m a lunatic or whether I am serious about this because if you say someone had an idea and it’s going to take them 28 years before they can move on it you can either be a lunatic or you can be somebody who’s deadly serious. I think they realized soon that I was deadly serious and they agreed to make the film and indeed it took four years to make and it premiered at the Sundance Film festival in January and now it’s been playing around the world and it’s going on HBO on February 20th.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, congratulations and I look forward to seeing it! I remember when it came here to New York and unfortunately I was in California for a good amount of that time and so I missed it when it was here and I look forward to seeing it in February. I’m going to have to find somebody who has HBO.

Steven Wise: Indeed.

Caryn Hartglass: But I think I can do that, all right so you’ve expanded the mission of the non-human rights project. Can you talk about that?

Steven Wise: Yes! Well we originally were planning on just filing lawsuits and specifically we began by filing habeas corpus lawsuits on behalf of captive chimpanzees we begun moving that to filing other sorts of lawsuits in states other than the state of New York on behalf of other animals so our next lawsuit will be on behalf of elephants in a circus, we have a lawsuit after that we’ll probably go after chimpanzees being used in entertainment we always have an idea we’re looking at Sea World in San Diego and we are trying to figure out how we may be will file lawsuits against Sea World but we’re also moving into the legislative department not at the state level or the federal level but we have been working on how to try to get ordinances passed that would make certain non-human animals legal persons who have the capacity to for rights at the municipal level at the county level or at the city level or at the town level so we are beginning to do that we’re beginning to get more deeper into public education program basically so that we can continue to make people understand why we’re doing what we are doing and also we think that will make it easier for us to win at the legislative level as well as in front of judges because they will have a much better idea as to from a legal point of view why we’re doing what we’re doing but also we never do anything on behalf of the non-human animal that we haven’t already lined up the world’s great experts in that cognition of that non-human animal and so they will then; judges, legislatures and others will be able to really get an idea as to what kind of extraordinary minds so many of these non-human animals have we’re beginning to focus; we focus first on the great apes, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and also Indian I’m sorry Asian and African elephants as well as some dolphins and whales those are the non-human animals who we’re starting with. One of the reasons we’re starting with them it’s because there is so much known about their minds that it’s clear that they have these extraordinary complex minds and we want other people to understand what we understand by getting all sorts of facts together lining up experts and letting people know what kind of beings we’re living with on this planet.

Caryn Hartglass: Something that fascinated me when I heard you speak in Brooklyn as well is talking about the law and how you can make changes in the law kind of how it builds on itself and right now a lot of us are feeling a lot of despair because of the future of the federal government with the man who will be President very soon and who he is choosing to be a part of his cabinet and staff and it’s somewhat scary and some of us are thinking that our civil rights are going to be taken away to some degree but you’re focusing on working on the state level and now you are talking about the municipal level and tell me why that’s important?

Steven Wise: Well, I think it’s important because first of all they’re independent we work on state common law actually and the common law is the law that judges make while they are in the process of deciding cases and it doesn’t have anything to do with federal law at all so a lot of things going on in the federal level that would not affect us because we’re working at the common law level and common law has being around for 8 or 900 years and it slowly changes but it’s made to be flexible, to change according to how the public experience changes public morays change how scientific facts continue to improve and so the arguments we have been making and continue to make at the common law level we will continue to make no matter who’s sitting on the US supreme court or who’s sitting on the federal benches at the municipal level we’re actually looking at those states that have so called constitutional home rule which means that within their state constitutions there are provisions that allow them to legislate in a way that they cannot be overridden at the state level and so they are almost like little states themselves cities and towns within that state have the power of the state and so we want to go into make our arguments at a smaller level like a county level or a city level as well as making common law arguments at the state level we think it’s the way to really get our foot in the door and so that’s why we have chosen that once you go to the federal level your dealing with either federal statutes which there are very very few federal statutes that protect non-human animals or you are dealing with federal courts who rarely have jurisdiction over non-human animal issues so we think starting at the state level and the municipal level is the way we want to begin.

Caryn Hartglass: Can you tell us what’s going on around the world on this subject?

Steven Wise: Yes!

Caryn Hartglass: I think there are some positive things that have been happening

Steven Wise: I can tell you, yes one of, the non-human rights project might be working at the municipal level and the state level and we skip our federal level but we go we skip right up to the international level so we have been working slowly with lawyers in I think probably 10 countries now in France, England, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, India, Australia, New Zealand, trying to impart whatever help we can give to them to try to get legal rights for non-human animals and working with them so we can share whatever experience we have and we may be able to learn from them as well and I think the country we are having the most success is Argentina and there was a case about 2 months ago in Mendoza, Argentina where a chimpanzee named Cecilia was also a subject of a rid of habeas corpus that was really modeled on our work and the arguments made about the cognition of Cecilia the chimpanzee was also modeled on our work we were really happy to see that and also I had spent a week down in Buenos Aires and Bahia Blanca in Argentina in May speaking of lawyers so I knew how eager people were to be able to push this sort of thing forward so a judge then did indeed grant a writ of habeas corpus and ordered a chimpanzee named Cecilia to be taken from the Mendoza Zoo and sent to a sanctuary in Brazil so I think that where for the first time that a writ of habeas corpus has been used successfully all the way we have been successful; we’ve had a judge in Manhattan issue a writ of habeas corpus or in New York they would call it an order to show cause that was the first time that it has happened in the world that required Stony Brook who was imprisoning two chimpanzees named Hercules and Leos to actually come into court and defend for the first time in history their imprisonment of a non-human animal. When we had the habeas corpus hearing the judge ruled in our favor all the way down the line except for one thing she felt bound by a previous ruling in another part of New York that had gone against us. So she said I’m going to have to deny your writ of habeas corpus “for now.” We are actually going into appellate court in New York city in January on behalf of Tommy the chimpanzee and the same appellate court in February on behalf of Keiko the chimpanzee trying to persuade that court to tell the judge who ruled against us that she doesn’t have to pay attention to that other case; that case was decided long ago.

Caryn Hartglass: So you keep chipping away.

Steven Wise: Oh yes!

Caryn Hartglass: These judges look for kind of an excuse; they don’t have the courage to rule in favor of your case.

Steven Wise: Well judges they are not all cut from the same cloth, some judges are very conservative, some judges are much more liberal, some are willing to have their picture on the front page of newspapers some are not willing to have their picture on the front page of newspapers and they’re broad and diverse kind of judges so we really can’t pick the ones we are going in front of so we kind of make our arguments in front of judges we get and even in the first 3 years we’ve gotten a wide variety of judges some judges we’ve done much better in front of then others in fact when you watch the film by the way it’s called “Unlocking the Cage” you can watch one or two judges kind of ring me out about what I’m trying to do and then you can find other judges who are very, very sympathetic to it. It’s just kind of how their made what their value systems are and also what kind of a case they think we are filing for example do they think we are filing a property case because of chimpanzees property or do they think we are filing a civil rights case because we’re asking for a legal right for a non-human animal so we think a judge who kind of intuitively believes that she has a property case in front of her is going to rule against us while a judge who kind of intuitively thinks that she has a civil rights case in front of her may tend to rule in our favor we have an immense amount of patience and we just apply as much pressure as we can we also speak to our brothers and sisters in the legal profession by continuing to write and publish series of law review articles in which we explain at much greater length the legal arguments that we’re using in our cases so that judges and lawyers and law clerks can read them and understand what we’re doing and it’s also something that we can cite to in our briefs again the judges or their clerks can go to these articles and get a better understanding then they might me be able to get even by reading our briefs because there’s always a page limit on our briefs and not really a page limit on our books or law review articles and or an oral argument in front of a judge may take up to 15 minutes there is not a whole lot that you can talk about in 15 minutes so we give them our books and articles.

Caryn Hartglass: I’m just curious about Stony Brook and what their argument was to keep these animals imprisoned.

Steven Wise: Well I’m afraid I’m not really clear of what is sometimes you can watch the lawyer for Stony Brook and assistant attorney general make the arguments. I think the most important arguments were number one judged this has never been done before you shouldn’t do it now and that’s the argument that anybody makes who wants to keep the status quo and someone else comes in and says hey it’s time because of new scientific evidence or changes in the law it’s time to move something in a different direction the person doesn’t want to move will say hey you don’t know what is going to happen we shouldn’t be doing this that kind of argument can make all the time and then they make another kind of argument which in law is known as the slippery slope which is judge if you grant a habeas corpus to a chimpanzee and get her out of her cell and put her in a sanctuary well that means then chimpanzees are going to want to come in and they’re going to want to vote and want to go to college and want to get married and so you shouldn’t start down this dangerous trail of the slippery slope and the judge actually in her opinion in the Stony Brook case specifically address the slippery slope argument and said I don’t buy it if the party in front of me is entitled to justice they will get it and then we will let the next judge decide the next case which I think is the appropriate answer to the slippery slope argument.

Caryn Hartglass: Ok Steve, this is difficult this work this is challenging work this is time consuming work it cost’s money how can we help what can people do?

Steven Wise: Well, if you would like to donate to us you certainly can. You can go to our website which is and you’ll find a donate button, also, you will find that everything that we file or everything an opponent files or everything that a judge does everything whether we like it or not goes up on our website. We’re also; also the website that you see in December is not going to be the website that’s going to go up in January because we are spending money to really change our whole website to make it much easier for people to follow and also if you’re interested in just working anywhere in the United States or anywhere in the world for the same sorts of things that the non-human rights project is interested in. We are expanding we’re beginning to actually put people into district captains in each state and so we’ll be able to talk with you not right now but by March or April we will be able to talk to you about what you might be able to do to help our work in the state of which you are living.

Caryn Hartglass: Ok, very good thank you, thank you Steven M. Wise of the non-human rights project.

Steven Wise: Hey, thanks so much for having me on.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, thank you for keeping it up for so many decades doing what you’re doing.

Steven Wise: You’re very welcome thanks for having me on.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, Happy Holidays! All right that was Steven M. Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project you can find more at the non-human website at How awesome is that for someone to be working for the voiceless and improving the legal rights for those who are sentient and are smart and cannot represent themselves in our legal system, which is so abusive to them. Ok, we just have a couple minutes left and I wanted to bring you back to where we work to make life lovely and delicious while making it better for the planet and better for those non-human animals that many choose to look at it as food which we at do not and we give you all the good reasons not to consume animals for food because the food is so yummy and delicious. You know we were talking about anxiety before and energy and we’ve made these super-duper green power smoothies at home and when we do I just can’t believe how satiated I am and how much energy I have all day long so if you’re looking to be really energized well you try one of these, they are green, they are super green and they are fully loaded with all good things you can find it at Again I want to mention as I mentioned at the beginning of the program that is a non-profit and I am offering for those who donate $35 or more this book 25 Women who Survived Cancer: Notable Women Sharing Inspiring Stories of Hope, I’ve contributed a chapter and at Responsible Living and Eating we do offer free consultations for people in a health crisis with cancer and you can help support our work doing that with a donation and you can also get a book it makes a great stocking stuffer. All right thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food and you can find me at if you have some comments and questions we are here to serve deliciously. Okay, have a really good delicious week!

Transcribed by M. Eng, 2/3/2017

  2 comments for “Steven M. Wise, Nonhuman Rights Project, Expanding Mission and Work Beyond the Courtroom

  1. Steven Wise, I am just taking the time to thank you for the amazing selfless work you are doing.
    Giving these enslaved chimpanzees a voice. These highly intelligent and emotional beings deserve their freedom. We as a selfish human race should at least have enough compassion to see the suffering animals endure in the hands of humans. The worst part of this is knowing how chimpanzees have an incredibly high intelligence level which lets them actually understand that they are in captivity and are not soon to be let out. What is even sadder is that chimpanzees seem to have more compassion than we do as a human race. Honestly I believe we are responsible to teach our children to respect all lives so that in the future society is in full agreement that there is zero tolerance for animal cruelty and enslavement.

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