The Nonhuman Rights Project Advocates For Zoo Animals

Nov 18, 2017
Originally published on November 18, 2017 8:36 am
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Minnie, Beulah and Karen are elephants. Do they have any standing in a court of law? The Nonhuman Rights Project is petitioning the state of Connecticut on behalf of those three residents of Goshen, Connecticut's Commerford Zoo. For over 20 years, the project has been working to prove that some animals, in fact, deserve legal status. Steven Wise has taught animal rights law at Harvard, Stanford and other law schools. He's president of the Nonhuman Rights Project and joins us now from member station WLRN in Miami. Thanks very much for being with us, Mr. Wise.

STEVEN WISE: Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: Now, in doing stories on animals, animal rights, animal welfare, I usually try and avoid saying person or persons. You use that word on what basis?

WISE: We use the word in a - kind of as a legal term of art. In fact, oftentimes, we have to stand up and argue to judges in court to remind them that the word human and person are not synonyms - that a person is a legal term of art that means that entity is capable of legal rights, as opposed to a thing who's not capable of legal rights. And we argue that elephants ought to be persons in that they ought to have the capacity to have one or more legal rights.

SIMON: Recognizing a lot of people are going to be skeptical, what in your judgment qualifies an elephant to be a person?

WISE: Well, we look at the law that the court set out in the case of Connecticut. And they make it very clear that a very important part of the job of a judge is to protect autonomy, the ability for an entity who can choose how to live her life to be able to choose freely how to live her life. We're the first ones to come in and say, we, judges, are able to prove to you that elephants are autonomous. And they live lives that, for them, are free - that they can choose - and that they ought to be able to do that and not be held in captivity any further.

SIMON: And you have some legal backing for this?

WISE: Well, yes, we do. There's a long history within the human race of those human beings who, at one time, were also considered things who had petitioned the courts to be seen as legal persons or to have certain kinds of rights. There's a history of human slavery. There are other cases involving Native Americans in the United States who didn't want to be imprisoned and sought a writ of habeas corpus. And the government would say a Native American can't get a writ of habeas corpus because Native Americans are not persons. And the court decided that, yes, they would be persons who would have a right to bodily liberty.

SIMON: Mr. Wise, when you speak of autonomy for elephants, what makes you so certain this is something the elephants want?

WISE: Well, we do it by speaking to the experts who have worked with elephants throughout their entire lives, not trainers, not people whose economic lives depend on them subjugating and exploiting elephants but on those who have spent their lives working with them in the wild and, sometimes, working with them with them in captivity. And we asked those experts, what would an elephant want? And the experts who we have talked to - and we think virtually all the experts in the world - are really clear that elephants - they want to be able to live as wild elephants do.

SIMON: You would have them go to a sanctuary that you know about.

WISE: Yes, the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary just outside of Sacramento, Calif.

SIMON: You understand, Mr. Wise, there are people listening to this at home on a Saturday morning who are probably looking at their dog or cat or other domestic pet - and say, look, I - they're a member of my family, but I don't think they're a person.

WISE: We're not arguing that dogs and cats are persons right now. I don't know whether dogs or cats or any other nonhuman animals other than the ones that we've been focusing on so far, which are chimpanzees and elephants and orcas - whether they may be autonomous. I certainly suspect my dog might be. But I don't have the scientific evidence for it.

SIMON: Steven Wise is president of the Nonhuman Rights Project. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Wise.

WISE: Oh, I greatly appreciate it. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.