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Upholding Fundamental Values and Principles of Justice

By Lauren Choplin

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963)

As with human rights, nonhuman rights are based on fundamental values and principles of justice such as liberty, autonomy, equality, and fairness. Rights protect against wrongs that we as a society have deemed intolerable, such as detaining individuals against their will without sufficient cause or subjecting them to mental or physical torture. All of human history, up to and including the present moment, shows that the only way to truly protect human beings’ fundamental interests is to recognize their rights. It’s no different for nonhuman animals.

Whether we’re talking about vulnerable human beings or nonhuman animals like our chimpanzee and elephant clients, legally enforceable rights are critical to helping individuals protect and, if necessary, regain their liberty and dignity—especially in circumstances where they might otherwise be powerless to confront the people or institutions responsible for depriving them of these vital aspects of existence.

As we at the NhRP take stock of the first half of 2018 and look forward to the months ahead, the importance of upholding fundamental values and principles of justice—for the sake of all beings—is very much on our minds, as it might be yours, too.

Obstacles remain, of course, such as the sheer scale of culturally and legally accepted animal exploitation or the knee-jerk resistance of some judges to our legal arguments, not to mention our current political climate.

But—and we can’t stress this enough—there is a lot to be hopeful about and to celebrate. In that spirit, below you will find a roundup of the best NhRP news and updates from January 2018 to today, including court decisions, international outreach, new partnerships, and what we have planned for the months ahead. ⚖️

US high court judge: chimpanzee thinghood a “manifest injustice”

In May 2018, in response to our Motion for Permission to Appeal to the New York Court of Appeals in our cases on behalf of captive chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko, Judge Eugene M. Fahey issued the first formal opinion of any US high court judge on the merits of our legal arguments in support of nonhuman legal personhood and rights. Judge Fahey wrote that the failure of the Court to grapple with the issues the NhRP raises:

amounts to a refusal to confront a manifest injustice … To treat a chimpanzee as if he or she had no right to liberty protected by habeas corpus is to regard the chimpanzee as entirely lacking independent worth, as a mere resource for human use, a thing the value of which consists exclusively in its usefulness to others. Instead, we should consider whether a chimpanzee is an individual with inherent value who has the right to be treated with respect.

Urging his fellow judges to enter into the necessary public policy debate about nonhuman rights, he noted that each of the only three setbacks the NhRP has suffered since 2014 in three of New York’s intermediate appellate courts had been the result of specific errors that each court had made, just as we have been claiming. Judge Fahey wrote that “the question (is) one of precise moral and legal status … Moreover, the answer to that question will depend on our assessment of the intrinsic nature of chimpanzees as a species.” He made clear that he had already made that assessment and that chimpanzees are not “things” but were likely “persons.”

This opinion—issued three years after a New York Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe issued legal history’s first habeas corpus order that required an entity (Stony Brook University) to come to court to give a legally sufficient reason for detaining a nonhuman animal (our chimpanzee clients Hercules and Leo)—will be seen as a turning point in the struggle for nonhuman rights. Considering that nonhuman animals have been uniformly considered legal “things” for two millennia, we are making rapid progress and anticipate that opinions like Judge Fahey’s and orders like Justice Jaffe’s will embolden other judges to reconsider the anachronism of all nonhuman animals as rightless things.

Support from habeas corpus experts, philosophers

The four amicus curiae briefs filed in support of our Motion for Permission to Appeal represent another form of progress in the struggle for nonhuman rights. One brief was submitted by highly respected Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe. A second was submitted by Justin Marceau and Samuel Wiseman, two respected law professors experienced with habeas corpus. A third was submitted by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil liberties organization that has won important habeas corpus victories on behalf of Guantanamo inmates in the United States Supreme Court. The fourth was filed by a group of seventeen North American philosophy professors who sought to educate the Court of Appeals on the philosophical errors the lower courts had made in deciding our cases. Their brief is also the focus of an upcoming book. They have now formed a standing group to consult on philosophical and ethical questions raised by our work and are currently working on an amicus brief in support of the NhRP’s Connecticut elephant appeal. Judge Fahey cited to all these amicus briefs, except that filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Tommy and Kiko remain in captivity, but we will continue to fight for their release to a sanctuary and are in the process of reviewing our options in this regard.

Hercules and Leo

Meanwhile, as of March 2018, our chimpanzee clients Hercules and Leo are finally free of the New Iberia Research Center, demonstrating the positive impact of the worldwide media attention and public pressure created by our litigation, even when this litigation is paused or ended. We continue to monitor Hercules and Leo’s situation at Project Chimps to ensure their interests are being adequately protected.

Second habeas corpus petition in Connecticut

Litigation can move slowly, but the NhRP fights for our nonhuman animal clients to have their cases fully and fairly litigated as quickly as possible. That is why, in May 2018, we filed a second habeas corpus petition in Connecticut on behalf of our elephant clients Beulah, Karen, and Minnie to avoid any undue delay in securing their liberty while the appellate process is proceeding on the rejection of our first habeas corpus petition on their behalf.

Connecticut attorney and legal expert: elephant rights case is not frivolous

In another powerful show of support, Mark A. Dubois, a prominent expert in Connecticut legal ethics and professional responsibility, filed an affidavit in support of the NhRP’s second habeas corpus petition. In his affidavit, Dubois stated that our lawsuit had merit and was not frivolous in whole or in part. Dubois is a former president of the Connecticut Bar Association who from 2003 through 2011 served as Connecticut’s Chief Disciplinary Counsel (essentially the chief ethics prosecutor of the Connecticut Judicial Branch); his office prosecuted over 1,000 lawyer ethics cases and supervised many more. He is the co-author of Connecticut Legal Ethics and Malpractice and has taught law and lawyers’ ethics at Yale Law School, the University of Connecticut Law School, Quinnipiac University School of Law, and Yale Law School.

International outreach

As our US litigation continues, individuals and groups outside the US continue to invite us to speak and assist with their efforts to attain legal rights for nonhuman animals in their countries. Just within the last nine months, NhRP President Steven M. Wise met with and spoke to legal groups with whom the NhRP is working in Sweden, the UK, and Finland. He is scheduled to lecture in Canada, the UK, Germany, Finland, and France in 2018. In April, Steve and NhRP International Coordinator Shirley Shtiegman lectured at every law school in Israel and began working with the Tel Aviv School of Law’s Environmental and Animal Rights Law Clinic, the “Animal Rights” portion of which focuses on the NhRP’s work. Steve will return next year to teach “Animal Rights Jurisprudence” at the Tel Aviv Law School and work further with the clinic. In May, Steve and NhRP Executive Director Kevin Schneider spoke to and began working with legal groups in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea, and India (where a high court just declared the entire animal kingdom “legal entities with rights” and we are already working with local groups on rights-based litigation on behalf of a captive elephant). Steve and Kevin also met with judges in Israel and India who had decided cases that favored the legal rights of nonhuman animals in their respective countries.

New partnership to secure rights for Southern Resident Killer Whales

In April, we partnered with the Earth Law Center on its initiative to support local communities and indigenous groups in the Puget Sound and wider Salish Sea by gaining legal rights for the entire Puget Sound, including Southern Resident Killer Whales. Learn more here, including how you can help. This is our first formal partnership with advocates for the rights of nature.

Support for New York Circus Ban

In June, we sent letters to New York Assemblyman Steven Englebright and Senator Phil Boyle to express our support for A.8157-A/S.7718-A, an act to prohibit the issuance of permits for the use of wild animals in circuses in New York. “Wild animals live complex and emotionally rich lives in their natural environment where they can engage in their innate behaviors,” we wrote. “Animals in circuses face a bleak existence, one where they are subjected to beatings, psychological torment, and perpetual isolation. They are deprived of their liberty, forced to live in cages and trailers, and prohibited from moving about freely or engaging in any behavior that is natural to them.”

Assessing public support for nonhuman rights

In February 2018, we shared the results of a nationally representative survey we conducted with Professor Garrett Broad of Fordham University. The survey indicates that nearly half of Americans say they support legal rights for nonhuman animals. We are setting up focus groups based on our survey polling, the results of which will directly inform our legislative and education work.

Preparing for new nonhuman rights legislation and litigation

As we continue to expand our mission and work beyond the courtroom, our Director of Government Relations and Campaigns, Courtney Fern, an attorney with experience at several large human rights and animal protection organizations, is carefully laying the groundwork for our municipal legislative initiatives, which we hope will lead to legal rights for nonhuman animals across the US. We are putting particular focus on connecting with groups outside of the traditional animal protection context. The NhRP has also begun to prepare habeas corpus lawsuits on behalf of chimpanzees, elephants, and orcas in states and on behalf of clients we can’t name just yet—please stay tuned.

Looking ahead to a future where nonhuman rights are respected along with human rights

Each time we litigate, we gain more sophisticated understandings of what it takes to win, then work to implement those understandings. The Fahey opinion, we think, will come to be seen as a landmark case in the ongoing struggle for rights for nonhuman animals, both within the US and around the world. We have also ramped up our international efforts, the result of years of patient efforts and frequent speaking and media engagements by Steve, which enables us to act as a pro bono legal consultant for nonhuman rights advocates and lawyers all over the world, sharing our experiences, filings, research, and adding however we can to their work. And we are beginning to expand beyond the courtroom, in the belief that we need to fight to win hearts and minds in every corner of society that we can reach, including through arts and entertainment. We are also deep into the process of unpacking the social attitudes that drive responses to our work, be they confusion, support, indifference, or outright hostility.

In addition, we are working on expanding our operational capacity by hiring another full-time attorney. At the same time, we are reconfiguring and building up our volunteer program to find meaningful ways for people without legal training to assist with our work.

Thank you so much for standing with the NhRP and for the rights of the most vulnerable. It means the world to us and, if only they could know it, to the beings who are suffering these injustices day in and day out, in the US and all over the world. This fight is for them.


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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963)

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