I learned that the University of Louisiana’s New Iberia Research Center had finally decided to send Hercules, Leo, and 218 other imprisoned chimpanzees to the Project Chimps sanctuary, I was on a break between lectures in Bahia Blanca, Argentina. When I resumed my lecture, I began by announcing, in English, what I had learned. To my astonishment, the interpreter immediately began to weep. When she could finally speak, the audience burst into applause.
This reaction brought home the fact that the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project is greatly respected and closely followed in Argentina, where there has long been a vibrant, passionate, dedicated community of people pursuing legal protections and rights for nonhuman animals. I had the pleasure of meeting some of them two years ago in Cordoba, Argentina when I participated in the Second International Congress on the Rights and Protections of Animals.
As many NhRP supporters know, Argentina is the country where, since 2014, attorneys have filed habeas corpus lawsuits intended to free Arturo, a polar bear, an orangutan named Sandra, and two chimpanzees. Like NhRP clients chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko, these nonhuman animals usually live alone without the company of others of their kind.
My Whirlwind Visit to Argentina
I was invited to Buenos Aires and Bahia Blanca to speak in the Buenos Aires Legislature, the Argentine National Senate, the Law School at Bahia Blanca, the University of Buenos Aires Law School, and the Buenos Aires Bar Association. Everywhere audiences were large and enthusiastic about the work the NhRP is doing in the US.
I was eager to exchange ideas with Argentine attorneys, learn more about Argentine animal rights advocates’ efforts to obtain personhood for nonhuman animals, and, I hoped, find out what was going on with the habeas corpus cases. After meeting one remarkable animal rights advocate after another I feel confident that, together, we can gain legal personhood for nonhuman animals in both countries.
On Monday, May 2nd, Legislator Adrián Camps introduced me at a one-hour press conference held in the Sala de Eva Perón in the Parliament building in Buenos Aires. Perón, of course, was a legendary figure in Argentine politics, fighting for women’s suffrage and labor rights among numerous other social justice causes. Peron’s pens were still on her desk, which was positioned in a place of honor in the room.
After the press conference, I was taken up a grand marble staircase to the Buenos Aires Parliament lecture room, which was filled with about 300 people. The movie trailer for Unlocking The Cage was playing on a loop on a large screen at one end of the hall. It was surreal to walk into the room and see NhRP Attorney Elizabeth Stein and former Executive Director Natalie Prosin speaking from the large screen.
Dr. Gerardo Biglia, an attorney with the Centro de Prevencion de Crueldad al Animal (CPCA), gave a impressive talk about the drive toward obtaining legal personhood for nonhuman animals in Argentina. Legislator Camps then presented me with a certificate and gold medallion making me an official “Guest of the City,” which I accepted on behalf of my extraordinary colleagues in the NhRP.
I then gave an hour lecture. Everyone wanted to know what the NhRP is doing. People walked up to say how much the NhRP’s work means to them. It was very moving. The next day in Bahia Blanca, I would walk by a meeting of the local legislature when one legislator looked up, appeared to recognize me, and gave a thumbs up!
The next day, my wife, Gail, who accompanied me as my interpreter – in many photographs you will see my head bent in her direction as I strained to catch her whispered interpretation of the Spanish being spoken by everyone except me – and I caught an early plane to Bahia Blanca, a city of 400,000. There I participated in a ceremony and was made an official “Guest of the City” of Bahia Blanca at City Hall, again complete with certificate and medallion. I was taken to the Bar Association to meet the incoming and outgoing dean and to be interviewed. Then I anchored a two day conference at the law school in which I spoke at length about the work of the NhRP and how it might apply to Argentina, while several Argentinian lawyers spoke about the use of habeas corpus in Argentina.
Back in Buenos Aires
I was given a tour of the Federal Senate and House of Representatives. I was supposed to speak in the room reserved for when Presidents lie in state, but a chunk of ceiling fell, and we were assigned to another room. That audience included federal Senators and Representatives, while letters were read loud from prominent judges and politicians expressing regrets for being unable to attend. I was introduced by Senator María Magdalena Odarda, a great friend of nonhuman animals in Argentina who awarded me a “Diploma of Honor” from the Federal Senate. Following my lecture, I went to a lovely reception at the Buenos Aires Bar Association, where I was honored with another certificate.
The last day I lunched with animal rights lawyers Graciela Regina Adre, our host who labored for months for get me and Gail to Argentina and these events – and Gerardo Biglia as we planned how to work long-term with each other in the struggle for legal personhood for nonhuman animals.
My trip ended with an address to a standing room only crowd at the University of Buenos Aires Law School. My lecture was followed by a wonderful speech given by animal rights professor Susana Dascalaky. I was then delighted to hear the respected civil appellate judge, Oscar Ameal, praise the NhRP’s work.
Thank you, Buenos Aires, Bahia Blanca, and Argentina, for one of the most gracious weeks of my life. I made many friends and colleagues with whom the NhRP will work for many years. Mucho gracias. I am immensely proud of and moved by the work that nonhuman rights advocates are doing in and look forward to working together in the months and years to come.