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What’s Next in the Fight for Nonhuman Rights

By Steven Wise

From the HBO premiere of Unlocking the Cage to Tommy and Kiko’s appellate hearing to the filing of our first elephant rights lawsuit, 2017 was a busy year for the Nonhuman Rights Project. We expect 2018 will be no different. Here is a breakdown of what we accomplished—with your support—in the last 12 months and what we have in store for the months ahead:


We continue to litigate habeas corpus cases in New York on behalf of captive chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko. In November, we filed a motion with the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Judicial Department for permission to appeal to their cases New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

We have begun litigating a habeas corpus case in Connecticut on behalf of three captive elephants, Beulah, Karen, and Minnie, and launched a #RumbleForRights social media campaign to draw attention to the injustice of their legal thinghood.

On Dec. 26, 2017, Judge James M. Bentivegna dismissed the NhRP’s habeas petition on behalf of Beulah, Karen, and Minnie, claiming the NhRP lacked standing and that our lawsuit is “frivolous” because no one had ever brought such a case before in Connecticut. Today, we announced we have continued the legal fight on their behalf, filing a motion to reargue and asking the Connecticut Superior Court, Litchfield County, to reverse its dismissal of our petition.

In July of 2017, a court in Colombia reversed the refusal of a lower court to issue a writ of habeas corpus to a spectacled bear named Chucho. A higher court reversed that ruling in August. Luis Maldonado (the attorney and law professor who filed the petition for the writ) is appealing, and we are supporting Luis in his efforts however we can.

In April, litigation modeled on the NhRP’s resulted in the release of a chimpanzee, Cecilia, to Projeto GAP’s sanctuary. Cecilia is the first nonhuman animal to be legally recognized as a legal person with rights. She won’t be the last.

Chimpanzee Cecilia stands in the grass at GAP Brazil's Sorocabo sanctuary.
Photo: Projeto GAP Brazil

Meanwhile, the arguments we’ve raised in favor of nonhuman animal personhood and legal rights continue to resonate throughout the legal profession and beyond, having been referenced in court cases, hundreds of law review articles, and thousands of media reports around the world. Our unique and careful strategic approach also prompted Animal Charity Evaluators to designate the NhRP a “Standout Charity” for the second time, writing in its November 2017 review that the NhRP’s mission and work “could be the most promising avenue for improving the lives of animals in our society.”

What’s next: Continuing our legal battle on behalf of Tommy and Kiko, we’re waiting to see if New York’s First Department (an appellate court) will grant our request to send their appeal to the Court of Appeals. If the First Department does not rule in our favor on this motion, we will present another motion directly to the Court of Appeals, combined with a first-of-its-kind friend of the court letter jointly authored by approximately 15 Ph.D.-level philosophers who make the philosophical case for nonhuman rights and legal personhood for Tommy and Kiko, and specifically urge the Court of Appeals to reject the erroneous approach adopted by the First Department.

And we’re continuing to fight for sanctuary—without further delay—for Hercules and Leo, who, along with nearly 200 other chimpanzees, remain needlessly at the New Iberia Research Center as Project Chimps works on building out its operational capacity. Save the Chimps remains ready and willing to give lifetime sanctuary to all of our chimpanzee clients.

California, here we come!

We view California as a highly promising state for the NhRP. In 2017, I gave a talk about the work of the NhRP at the California Supreme Court at the invitation of Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar. Having completed the first round of research on California common law, we’ve set a deadline of March 10th for each member of our legal team to digest 3615 pages of cases and statutes and be ready to argue about what they mean!

What’s next: In March, our legal team will meet in New York to begin laying concrete plans to litigate on behalf of nonhuman animal clients in California. We hope to file our first case in the state in 2018.

International work

We’re working with more than a dozen legal groups on almost every continent to assist them in their struggle to attain legal personhood for nonhuman animals. In November and December, NhRP Executive Director Kevin Schneider spent two weeks traveling throughout India and Nepal, and I was in Nepal as well to give a keynote at the 10th Asia For Animals Conference.

What’s next: The NhRP legal team has already begun digging into the most important recent decisions of the Indian high courts discussing nonhuman animals, and we are assisting in the creation of a working group to pursue the first cases aimed at securing legal personhood and rights for nonhuman animals in India. We are also working to build groups in other parts of Asia and have more screenings of Unlocking the Cage in the works there. In May, I will travel to Hong Kong for a conference of animal lawyers from throughout Asia, then on to Malaysia, India, and likely Nepal and Bhutan to help advance the struggle for the personhood of nonhuman animals in those countries.

Artists for Nonhuman Rights

The creativity of poets, novelists, filmmakers, painters, photographers and other artists is vital to the nonhuman rights movement, encouraging people to rethink how we view and treat members of other species and setting the stage for meaningful changes to the legal status quo. That’s why we were delighted to work with author Thalia Field and the small press Solid Objects on a January 2017 benefit for the NhRP in New York City featuring readings from Thalia and other writers engaged with urgent animal and environmental advocacy issues. And in Chicago in July, NhRP Executive Director Kevin Schneider and photographer Colleen Plumb led a teach-in on the concept of legal personhood for nonhuman animals hosted by the Catherine Edelman Gallery at Facets Cinematheque.

And, as I have said before, every social justice movement needs a song—which is why earlier in 2017 we released a music video for “Meant To Be Free,” which Alex Forbes and I co-wrote (originally for the closing credits of Unlocking the Cage before it was replaced with a song by Bob Dylan). I hope you enjoy it!

What’s next: In early 2018, we’ll debut an animated video designed to raise awareness of the importance of nonhuman rights. We’re also working on an Artists for Nonhuman Rights virtual gallery and an e-book featuring stories, poems, and essays that resonate with the NhRP’s work.

Unlocking the Cage

In February, Unlocking the Cage—Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker’s documentary about the NhRP—premiered on HBO, reaching more than a million viewers, while Amazon and iTunes made the DVD available for purchase. Throughout 2017, we helped supporters host dozens of free screenings of the film in their own communities.

What’s next: We have more screenings in the works, and you can still sign up to host one in your community via our Unlocking the Cage campaign.

Thank you for joining the NhRP for all this and more! Here’s to a more just 2018 for all animals.

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