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Bringing the Nonhuman Rights Project to California

By Steven Wise

At the beginning of April, about two weeks after Tommy and Kiko’s appellate hearing in New York, I brought the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project to California. In many ways, this trip exemplified what the Nonhuman Rights Project is all about and what it will take to move away from a paradigm based on improving the welfare of legal “things” toward a paradigm based on recognizing the fundamental rights of legal “persons.”

Educating the Next Generation of Law Students

At the suggestion of Stanford Law Professor John Donohue, Stanford Law School invited me to teach a one-credit three-week class in “Animal Rights Jurisprudence” that was essentially the legal theories and litigation strategies of the NhRP. Eighteen students braved the course. They were magnificent, reading the material then discussing and arguing over every aspect of what the NhRP does and why; many also attended an April 12th showing of Unlocking the Cage, the HBO documentary about the work of the NhRP, at the Stanford Law School. Teaching young law students about animal rights jurisprudence is important not only because so many nonhuman animals need the kind of help only attorneys can provide, but also because they will be the ones to carry this work into the future and for decades to come. Like gay marriage, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and other social reform movements, the fight for nonhuman rights will take a long time. It will be intergenerational and international.

Staying Positive

Professor Donahue’s wife, Maureen O’Kicki Donahue, a self-described Human and Non Human Animal Rights Advocate, produced and co-directed a music video that features me singing a song, “Meant to be Free,” which I co-wrote with Alex Forbes. The song is upbeat, the video alternating between footage of nonhuman animals living freely and “living” in captivity, to help reinforce the power of hope and a sense of possibility in the fight for nonhuman rights. We are not stuck with the status quo as far as nonhuman animals’ legal status is concerned, and there is nothing to fear, only much to gain, in recognizing their personhood and fundamental rights. To quote the lyrics of “Meant to be Free,” “We drew the lines/We wrote the laws/Now we have the power to take down, break down these prison walls.” You can watch the video here.

Engaging in Debate

While at Stanford I was invited to appear on a special live edition of Philosophy Talk – The program That Questions Everything, which features two smart and funny co-hosts, Stanford philosophers Ken Taylor and John Perry. The podcast, which demonstrates that philosophy talk can be both illuminating and amusing, is featured on their website, and you can view highlights below:

Shortly after I participated in Philosophy Talk, Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino CuĂ©llar of the California Supreme Court and a Visiting Professor of Law at Stanford Law School invited me to give a talk at the California Supreme Court about the NhRP’s work. About forty people attended and engaged in a lively give-and-take whether nonhuman animals should have personhood and legal rights, which extended into the rapidly emerging field of the potential legal rights and personhood of artificial intelligence (AI) entities, a field in which an increasing number of media outlets are looking to the NhRP’s work for guidance.

As we say, regardless of the beings in question, we must not postpone debate and decision about the moral and legal standards by which we should recognize nonhuman rights. We have seen where this gets us: one visit to an aquarium or roadside zoo, one viewing of a SeaWorld commercial or documentary about factory farming, one reading of an unfavorable ruling in an animal welfare case or a woefully insufficient piece of animal welfare legislation shows you just how vulnerable legal “things” are to suffering and exploitation on a planetary scale. And this does not even take into account the long, dark history of viewing and treating oppressed humans as legal “things,” the systemic injustices of which are still with us today. For these reasons and more, we must do all we can now and in the future to ensure that rationality, good public policy, and proper moral thinking—not bias, fear of the loss of the status quo, or a desire to exploit—enter into considerations of who counts under the law.

Looking ahead to possible litigation and legislation in California

I am happy to say that the NhRP will be returning to California soon. Like all US states, California is not lacking in potential nonhuman animal clients who, as evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience suggest, are “meant to be free.” But from the grassroots up through the legislatures and courts, most Californians, and certainly the Californians I met on this visit and in previous visits, are deeply aware of the systemic injustices experienced by vulnerable human and nonhuman animals and prepared to act boldly to remedy them. That is exactly what the nonhuman rights movement needs.

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