Skip to content

NhRP Intern Alex Kleinman: Rights Aren’t A Zero-Sum Game

By Lauren Choplin

Alex KleinmanThis summer, the NhRP enlisted the help of our first (but definitely not our last) official intern, Alex Kleinman. Alex is an undergrad at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, where he studies Politics and serves as president of the Animal Rights Club at the Claremont Colleges.

While Alex was an NhRP intern, he worked closely with NhRP Campaigns Director Lisa Rainwater on campaigns-related research, legislative initiatives, and faith-based public outreach. He also was instrumental in helping secure college screenings of Unlocking the Cage across the country and wrote a review of Okja that examines the connections between the film and the fight for nonhuman rights. We all very much appreciated his energy and insights during his all-too-brief time with us; we suppose we’ll have to let him go back to college. 😉

Before his last day with us, I talked with him about why he supports recognition of nonhuman rights, his assessment of the state of the movement, his career plans, and more:

You’ve worked in both the nonhuman rights and environmental movements. How do you see them intersecting?

We so often sort issues into neat boxes. No doubt, some issues have no relationship. But when it comes to the nonhuman rights and environmental movements, we seem to miss crucial opportunities for collaboration. Cowspiracy did a great job of illustrating how animal agriculture wreaks havoc on the environment, and directors Keegan Kuhn and Kip Andersen called out the environmental movement’s failure to address animal agriculture as the most pressing climate change, water use, and land use issue of our time. At least with regard to food production, more people understand that the mass-scale deprivation of nonhuman rights and environmental destruction are connected and that we can fight both together as a united force.

While working for the NhRP, Lisa brought up an interesting idea that I’m still thinking about. If an Indonesian court recognized the fundamental rights of orangutans, palm oil plantations might end and that would be great news for the planet. The idea that wild animals rely on their habitats for survival and that systematically destroying those habitats violates their fundamental rights may catalyze work between the nonhuman and environmental movements.

Which nonhuman animal species is most compelling to you, and why?

As a child I dreamed about becoming a fish doctor. I don’t think I knew what veterinarians were at the time, hence the name “fish doctor.” Looking back, I think that passion was the product of two interests—helping others, particularly nonhuman animals. Although I’ve lost a lot of my interest in fish and have come to appreciate other nonhuman animals, fish will always hold a special place in my heart. I know it sounds weird! Fish are so distant from humans. We can barely interact with them. You can’t pet or really interact with a fish, so it’s difficult to feel any sort of emotional connection. But they’re incredibly graceful and beautiful animals, and it’s clear to me that their social and mental capacities warrant moral consideration. It’s unfortunate that we frequently overlook them.

What would you like to do after you graduate?

Part of the reason I pursued an internship at the NhRP was that I was and still am interested in advocating for legislation that protects animals beyond welfare statutes. So maybe I’d pursue a career in animal law after Pomona. But the law moves slowly. Changing people’s hearts and minds is arduous. And while I feel confident that cetaceans, elephants, and primates will eventually win the rights they so deserve, I’m not so sure the same can be said for farmed animals, whom we slaughter and abuse by the billions every year. As such, I see food innovations, like plant-based and clean meat, as an opportunity to move swiftly toward a more just future, not just for animals but also for human health and the environment. I’d love to get involved in advancing plant-based and cellular agriculture, and I’m still figuring out where I might best fit into that field. I’m also interested in artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality. But if none of that works out, maybe I’ll have to look further into the fish doctor path!

In your view, what’s the biggest obstacle to securing legal rights for nonhuman animals, and what do you think will be needed to overcome it?

When people hear that we’re trying to recognize a chimpanzee’s legal rights, they instantly think that humans will lose rights—as if winning legal rights were a zero-sum game. That mindset comes from a culturally entrenched and erroneous worldview. We just can’t seem to let go of the idea that we’re entitled to use animals as we please. It might take a long time to root out anthropocentrism, as it is central to the identity of the human species and has persisted over millennia.

Another obstacle is that anyone who isn’t a lawyer or philosopher probably misunderstands the meaning of “rights.” I don’t think we’ve figured out how to explain the idea of rights succinctly to people flicking through their newsfeeds. We seem to intuitively understand or at least assume that we know what rights are. But we use the word “rights” so often in everyday speech that the idea of fundamental legal rights for nonhuman animals is just so outside of, say, my right to a cup of coffee in the morning. Another way to think about it is, what does it say about the animal rights movement that it has campaigned under the banner of “animal rights” for years but just barely started advocating for bona fide legal rights until the NhRP came along?

The last obstacle, though it may sound clichéd, is that organizations and individuals passionate about animals are divided instead of united. Of course, people and institutions are bound to disagree on the best course of action, but I don’t see why we can’t try to collaborate when possible.

Anything else you want to share with NhRP supporters, especially young people like yourself or fellow college students?

If you’re reading this, you’re most likely an NhRP supporter, so find ways that you can actively contribute long term and meaningfully to the movement for nonhuman rights. Yes, donate to us and participate in our public actions, but also step back and think about what you can uniquely contribute. And if you’re just a college student like me, I’d say the same thing. Think about how you fit into the causes that animate you, and take steps toward making a significant impact.

Thank you, Alex! It was a pleasure working with you, and we look forward to you continuing to be a part of the NhRP. If you’re interested in becoming an NhRP intern, look out for a call for applications before the end of this year! 

Sign up to receive the latest updates on our mission

Find out about opportunities to get involved, breaking news in our cases and campaigns, and more.