Highly intelligent animals should have rights says US lawyer

The Nonhuman Rights Project filed lawsuits on behalf of four chimpanzees in New York State.

Basic ‘legal rights’ should be extended to animals that possess complex cognitive abilities says US lawyer and President of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NHRP) Professor Steven Wise.

Professor Wise discussed NHRP’s unique mission and their progress during his keynote address for the Brisbane leg of the Voiceless Animal Law Lecture held at Griffith earlier this month.

The not-for-profit NHRP is petitioning courts in the US to recognise the ‘legal personhood’ of great apes, dolphins, whales and elephants, based on scientific findings that show they are self-aware and self-determining.

To that end NHRP have three separate landmark lawsuits before the courts, filed on behalf of four chimpanzees: Tommy, Kiko, Hercules and Leo, detained in various parts of the state of New York.

During Professor Wise’s tour of Australia, one of the lawsuits involving Hercules and Leo, who are confined at Stony Brook University for biomedical research experiments, had a significant breakthrough.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe originally granted a writ of ‘habeas corpus’, compelling Stony Brook University to appear and justify keeping the chimpanzees.

This decision initially led to some exaggerated media reporting according to the NHRP, as habeas corpus is only open to ‘legal persons’. Justice Jaffe later amended the order to strike out the implication.

Griffith Law School academic and lawyer Mr Steven White, who opened the Brisbane Voiceless lecture says this order still remains highly significant because it has never previously been made for a non-human animal.

The hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday 27 May at the New York County Supreme Court.

Like the rest of the world, the local legal community will be watching that hearing closely and weighing up whether similar litigation might be successful in Australia, says Steven.

“The implications for Australia remain unclear. Lawyers and experts in the law and practice of writs like habeas corpus will need to assess the position in Australia in a detailed and comprehensive way,” he says.

“Time and marshaling of funding and expertise will be needed if a similar approach is to be pursued in Australia, keeping in mind Professor Wise has been pursuing this cause for 30 years.”

Steven says, community attitudes to animal welfare and animal rights are changing and the law will follow, the difficulty is predicting how long it may take.

“Law will have an important role to play, but community education and demand, fuelled by the advocacy of well-informed, persuasive and persistent organisations will be key to driving change.”

Voiceless is an independent, non-profit think tank focusing on raising awareness of animals suffering in factory farming and the kangaroo industry in Australia.

The Griffith Law School proudly supports the Voiceless Animal Law Lecture Series. You can watch this year’s lecture ‘Beyond the Cage’ on Youtube.

For more information on studying the upcoming Animal Law winter elective at Griffith contact Mr Steven White.