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The Nonhuman Rights Project

[Ed. Note: Conference December 6-8, 2013 - Personhood Beyond the Human]

From Earth in Transition
April 2013

nonhuman rights project elephant circus 

The great irony of the animal rights movement is that there is, to this day, still only one species that has any rights at all: humans. Despite all the talk of "animal rights", no other animal has any rights. None.

While there are laws that can protect certain animals from some forms of abuse, the animals themselves don't have the right not to be abused. It's no different from the fact that while there are laws that prevent me from stealing or vandalizing your car, your car itself doesn't have the right not to be vandalized. Both the car and the elephant are legally nothing more than pieces of property.

So when an organization tells you they're working for "animal rights", what they usually mean is that they're trying to make things a bit better for animals who have no rights.

This may be about to change, however. One organization is actually working to punch a hole in the legal wall that separates all humans from all nonhumans.

Later this year, the Nonhuman Rights Project will be filing suit on behalf of a single nonhuman animal who is being held in captivity, asking a judge to recognize him or her as a "legal person" with the capacity for certain fundamental rights appropriate to her species.

It will be a landmark case, and the national media are beginning to take notice. Outside magazine correspondent Tim Zimmerman recently wrote on his blog:

The single most important obstacle to more humane treatment of animals globally is that they have no legal rights. None. Change that, and you put the fight to defend and protect animals onto an entirely new playing field.

... That’s exactly what the Nonhuman Rights Project is trying to achieve, and that’s why it is potentially the single most powerful campaign for animals there is. ... This could be huge, and NhRP is well worth keeping a close eye on (and supporting).

I'd been keeping a close eye on the NhRP, too, and I became an active part of it last year. Founded by animal rights law attorney Steven M. Wise, it's composed largely of legal scholars, attorneys, law students, sociologists, scientists and others, who are mostly volunteering their time and expertise to help build the case for the first nonhuman plaintiffs to be recognized as having basic legal rights – like the right to bodily liberty (not be held captive in a zoo, circus, laboratory, etc.) and the right to bodily integrity (not to be subjected to invasive experiments).

I'm not an attorney, scientist or sociologist, but I'm helping put together the public outreach, including our website at www.nonhumanrights.org. And although it's still a small organization, I believe this group has the potential to make the biggest difference in a world where the situation is still getting worse for nonhuman animals, not better.

That's because until there's a fundamental change in the way our society views all nonhumans, things will only continue to get worse.

As long as the bedrock of our society – the legal system – sees no essential difference between an elephant and a DVD player, our society will continue to treat those animals as things that exist primarily for our personal benefit.

Nearly 250 years ago, a group of attorneys representing an American slave, James Somerset, who'd been taken to England by his owner, went to court on his behalf, asking the judge to recognize him as a "legal person" who had the right not be held captive and treated as a piece of property. The judge ruled in favor of Somerset and set him free.

nonhuman rights project blind justiceIn the wake of that judgment, many more cases were filed in the newly born United States, and although it took nearly 100 years for slavery to be abolished, the groundwork was laid in those first cases.

Now it's time for the legal system to start recognizing that at least certain highly intelligent, self-aware nonhuman animals also have rights – not "human rights", but rights that are relevant to their species. Elephants and dolphins, for example, should have the right not be held captive and made to dance around in circuses. Chimpanzees should have the right not to be kept in cages and used for laboratory experiments.

The time-honored phrase "Justice is blind" is supposed to mean that there should be no bias or prejudice in court as to the type of person you are or where you come from. This needs to extend beyond simply us humans. Justice should be "blind" to what species you are, too. At very least, a 40-year old chimpanzee who is self-aware and can hold a conversation with you using American Sign Language deserves to be recognized as a legal person with the capacity for basic rights.

Right now, however, the notion that "justice is blind" means only that it's blind to the fact that the animal in question exists as anything but a piece of laboratory property.

It's time for that to change.