Advocacy Group to Name Captive Chimp as Plaintiff in Historic Case

Illustration for article titled Advocacy Group to Name Captive Chimp as Plaintiff in Historic Case

The Nonhuman Rights Project plans to file a case on behalf of its first animal client, an unnamed captive chimpanzee. Sometime in the next few months, it will file a writ of habeas corpus asking a state court judge to grant the chimp its liberty. It could go down as the first true step towards animal personhood.

The NRP, which is led by lawyer Steven Wise, is not saying who the chimpanzee is or where it lives in the United States. So, when it announces the plaintiff, it’ll come as a complete surprise to the person or group holding it in captivity.

The strategy is the culmination of more than two decades of legal and scientific work by the group. Make no mistake — the NRP has been doing its homework. And it’s a far cry from PETA’s pathetic attempt to name orca whales as plaintiffs in a case against Sea World early last year.


Ultimately, the goal of the animal personhood movement is to secure legal rights for a certain subset of highly sapient mammals, including all great apes (of which the chimpanzee is one), cetaceans (i.e. dolphins and whales), and elephants. Once designated ‘nonhuman persons,’ these animals could be endowed with the same protections that we humans enjoy, including the right to not be experimented upon, confined, murdered, or made to perform against their will (like at circuses and aquatic centers).

Illustration for article titled Advocacy Group to Name Captive Chimp as Plaintiff in Historic Case

To learn more about this case and the nonhuman personhood movement, I highly recommend this recent article from the Boston Globe.

Here’s an excerpt:

Critics say legal personhood for animals is misguided, and even dangerous. They foresee a slippery slope in which a tightening web of rights starts to cripple scientific progress not just on life-saving medical research, but also on such goals as species conservation. Even within the animal-rights movement, the idea is controversial.

But Wise’s strategy is an imaginative solution to a quandary that bedevils animal advocates: how other species should be treated in a legal system that lumps everything into the categories of persons or things. As we learn more about animal intelligence and emotional complexity, these activists say, it is becoming clearer that the law needs a new way to talk about animals, whether that involves a special property designation just for animals or complete animal liberation from human use.

Wise, for his part, contends that legal personhood for a limited number of species—at least in the short term—is the most defensible and effective solution. Though it’s possible that this first case will be tossed out of court, he is prepared to bring more cases on behalf of other animals, which he believes will be turning points in the long expansion of who, or what, deserves inherent rights before law.

“For 30 years, I’ve been an animal slave lawyer,” says Wise. “I want to be an animal rights lawyer.”


There’s plenty more at the Globe, including a brief history of putting animals on trial, the rationale behind the idea of nonhuman persons, and a backgrounder on Steven Wise himself.

By the way, I’m the founder and director of the IEET’s Rights of Nonhuman Persons Program, and we’ve been working very closely with Wise’s group. In fact, we’re collaborating on the “Personhood Beyond the Human” conference to be held later this year at Yale.


Which should be all the more interesting given that the NHP will formally announce the chimpanzee plaintiff just prior to the conference.

Images: apiguide/Shutterstock; NRP.


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John Griffin

Well fine. But there's just no getting around the fact that animals cannot speak for themselves, so someone is going to have to speak on their behalf. And that person will inevitably make mistakes as to what is in the animal's best interest and also as to determining what its wishes are (which may not even be the same thing). Because neither of those things is non controversial.

I'd also like to point out that the idea that animals should automatically be in their "natural habitat" is an obvious fallacy as we, ourselves, have done everything in our power to escape or transform our own "natural habitat".