Frequently Asked Questions
Learn more about the NhRP and the fight for nonhuman rights
What is the Nonhuman Rights Project?
The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is the only civil rights organization in the US dedicated solely to securing rights for nonhuman animals.
Why are you called the Nonhuman Rights Project?
NhRP President Steven M. Wise founded the NhRP in 1996 as a project of the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights. In 2012, it was officially renamed the Nonhuman Rights Project. We use the term “nonhuman rights” to remind people that human beings are also animals—the only animals with legally recognized and enforceable rights.
What do you mean when you say the NhRP is a civil rights organization?
We are a civil rights organization because we seek recognition and protection of nonhuman rights within a civil rights framework. A civil right is a legally enforceable right that originates in notions of freedom and equality. The term civil rights might make you think of something only human beings can do, like voting, but broadly speaking, civil rights ensure basic freedoms and protect individuals against discrimination and oppression.
Civil rights can be bestowed by litigation or legislation. If a person or institution denies or interferes with a right because of an individual’s biologically immutable characteristics (i.e. membership in a particular group or class), this constitutes discrimination for which an individual can seek judicial remedy, including recognition and enforcement of that right. We argue the nonhuman animals we’re working to help are denied their liberty because of their species membership. Another word for this is speciesism.
What are your biggest victories so far?
The NhRP’s nonhuman animal rights litigation and soon-to-be-launched legislation are the first of their kind in the world. Our persistence and bold approach are already changing the legal status quo and have catalyzed a global conversation about how our legal systems view and treat nonhuman animals.
First clients sent to sanctuary
Thanks in part to the spotlight shined on their plight by our litigation, our chimpanzee clients Hercules and Leo are now living freely at Project Chimps sanctuary. Hercules and Leo are the first nonhuman animals in history to be granted a habeas corpus hearing to determine the lawfulness of their detention.
In December of 2018, our client Happy became the first elephant to have a habeas corpus hearing.
Litigation modeled on the NhRP’s has freed a chimpanzee named Cecilia to a sanctuary. Cecilia is the first and only nonhuman animal in the world to be recognized as a legal person with rights.
Historic court rulings
In May of 2018, a judge on New York’s highest court wrote that the failure of the New York courts 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.”
Judge Fahey is the first high court judge in the US to hold that “there is no doubt that [a chimpanzee] is not merely a thing.”
In June of 2018, New York’s Fourth Judicial Department cited to the NhRP’s chimpanzee rights case on behalf of Kiko in People v. Graves, writing, “It is common knowledge that personhood can and sometimes does attach to nonhuman entities like corporations or animals.” We see Graves and Fahey’s opinion as signs the New York courts have finally begun to reconsider and reject the thinghood and rightlessness of nonhuman animals.
Who are your clients?
Currently, chimpanzees and elephants. Our other potential clients include orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, dolphins, and whales. Learn more about our clients here.
What specific rights are you seeking for them?
The right to bodily liberty, i.e. not to be imprisoned, and (where relevant) the right to bodily integrity, i.e. not to be experimented on. Once these rights are recognized, we seek their release to sanctuaries where their rights will be respected.
Why those animals?
They are members of species for whom there is robust, abundant scientific evidence of self-awareness and autonomy.
Why self-awareness and autonomy?
Self-awareness is the capacity to recognize yourself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals. Autonomy is the capacity to make choices about how to spend your days and live your life. We believe it is morally and legally wrong to deprive self-aware, autonomous nonhuman animals of their liberty.
What role does scientific evidence play in your mission and work?
We closely follow the science of who nonhuman animals are because science creates an unshakable foundation for the arguments we make in courts and legislatures. Ethologists and other experts’ rigorous, often long-term studies of the cognitive, emotional, and social complexities of great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales make clear exactly why it’s wrong to imprison and exploit these nonhuman beings, especially alone and in environments radically unlike their natural habitats.
In conjunction with scientific evidence, human experience also matters deeply to what we do. What we know about nonhuman animals from observing and interacting with them in our everyday lives—and the conversations we have in turn—can help change and enrich larger cultural conversations about how we view and treat members of other species, making it more likely we will collectively change the legal status quo.
See our court case timelines for affidavits from Jane Goodall, Joyce Poole, and other experts on chimpanzees and elephants.
Do you care only about those animals?
Definitely not! Personally speaking, we’re as troubled as anyone by the systemic suffering of individual nonhuman animals all over the planet and the many threats they face because of human actions.
However, as an organization, we’re committed to working within our existing legal systems and pursuing the strategies we deem most likely to succeed in courts and legislatures based on the values and principles courts and legislatures say they believe in, such as liberty, autonomy, equality, and fairness. Great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales are not the only animals who are suffering. But they are the species we consider most likely to be the first to break through the legal wall that separates all nonhuman animals from all human beings.
Armed with the social, historical, political, and legal justice of our arguments, we’re here to help them do this. At the same time, great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales surely aren’t the only nonhuman animals whom scientists will be able to demonstrate are self-aware and autonomous; and while self-awareness and autonomy are sufficient for recognition of rights, they’re not necessary, either. It’s certainly possible that powerful legal arguments can be made based on other criteria, though this is not something we’re working on at the moment. We’ll continue to follow the science and the law wherever they lead us and develop and refine our arguments accordingly.
What is the difference between animal welfare and nonhuman rights?
It’s easy to get confused on this point because people often use the term animal rights to refer to what are actually animal welfare policies. In short, animal welfare focuses on improving the ways we treat animals without necessarily changing their underlying situations or prioritizing their interests above human interests. For example, you might pass an animal welfare law that increases the size of an elephant’s enclosure in a zoo: obviously this is better than not increasing it, but the zoo is still depriving the elephant of her liberty because people want to see elephants in zoos. We argue the elephant shouldn’t be in the zoo, period.
The fight for nonhuman rights focuses on the fact that nonhuman animals have their own inherent interests, just as humans do, and calls for these interests to be protected. 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.
At the same time, until we truly shift to a nonhuman rights paradigm, which may take many years, animal welfare laws are necessary to protect animals from human-caused harm. We’re grateful for the thousands of organizations doing this important work and are proud to count many of them among our friends and allies.
Learn more about the difference between animal welfare and nonhuman rights here.
What is habeas corpus?
The writ of habeas corpus, called the Great Writ, has existed for centuries and is meant to protect anyone who is unjustly imprisoned. When a judge issues an “Order to Show Cause” pursuant to a writ of habeas corpus—which has happened twice in our chimpanzee and elephant rights cases, resulting in the world’s first ever habeas corpus hearings on behalf of nonhuman animals—the detainer is required to appear in court to justify this imprisonment. We argue common law courts must recognize our nonhuman animal clients as legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus and then order their release to a sanctuary where this right will be respected to the greatest extent possible.
Habeas corpus experts including Laurence Tribe and legal advocacy organization The Center for Constitutional Rights have submitted amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs in support of our habeas corpus petitions. You can read their briefs here.
What is the common law?
Simply put, the common law is judge-made law that is based on the values held by judges. For a millennium, English-speaking judges have used the common law to decide cases that turn on general legal principles—such as liberty and equality—as opposed to those that require interpretation of statutes, constitutions, or treaties. Historically, the common law has been uniquely responsive to evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience; judges have a duty to ensure that the common law keeps up with these evolving standards. In our extensive court filings, we argue they must do so—as a matter of justice and good public policy—where the liberty of nonhuman autonomous animals is concerned.
What is a legal person? Is nonhuman animal legal personhood really necessary?
“Person” is a legal term of art, which means it has a particular meaning within the field of law. Simply put, a legal person is an entity that possesses one or more legal rights. You don’t have to be a human being to be a legal person. For example, in the US, corporations are legal persons. Around the world, ships, religious idols, holy books have been recognized as legal persons. New Zealand has recognized a river, a national park, and a mountain as legal persons. In 2017, an Argentine judge recognized a chimpanzee named Cecilia as a legal person via litigation modeled on the NhRP’s; Cecilia is now living in a sanctuary. In 2018, the Colombian Amazon became a legal person. These are only a few examples.
Simply put, in a court of law, you can’t have even a single right unless you’re considered a person, which is why the issue of personhood must be confronted head on with legal arguments that can withstand the inevitable storm of biases and legal errors (from the courts) and fear-mongering and claims of human exceptionalism (from opponents and those who wish to maintain the legal status quo).
In the US, women, children, African Americans, and Native Americans used to be considered legal things. After years of struggle and thanks to the persistence of activists who knew history was on their side, they are now legal persons. We have undertaken a similar struggle on behalf of nonhuman animals. Learn more about legal personhood here.
Don’t rights come with duties and responsibilities?
Nope! Millions of human beings, including children and adults with mental disabilities, have fundamental rights that are not linked to duties and responsibilities. Nor do rights derive from “the social contract,” which the United States Supreme Court has called “one of the great juristic myths of history.” Learn more about what legal rights are here.
Could nonhuman rights threaten or undermine human rights?
Also no! In fact, the opposite is true. Because nonhuman rights are based on the same values and principles of justice that protect human beings from unjust imprisonment and exploitation, recognition of nonhuman rights only strengthens the foundation for human rights. Put another way, as soon as you start denying rights to anyone for biased, arbitrary reasons, you’re putting the foundation for human rights on shaky ground. If we truly believe in values and principles like liberty and equality, we should and must extend them to at least some nonhuman animals, even if this means letting go of the desire to see a gorilla in a zoo or an elephant in a circus. Learn more about the connections between human rights and nonhuman rights here.
Can’t you just buy your clients and get them to sanctuaries that way?
We understand the deep concern for our clients’ well-being that motivates this question. However, buying our clients’ freedom goes against our mission and work and the organizational values of many sanctuaries. It would also set a bad precedent going forward, perpetuating the idea that nonhuman animals are merely things to be sold and purchased, and possibly create a financial incentive for the owners to purchase additional animals. In seeking to free nonhuman animals via rights-based litigation and legislation, we seek to help both the individual animals in question and address the systemic nature of the problem of their imprisonment and exploitation.
Where are you based?
We are headquartered in Coral Springs, Florida, but our staff work remotely from all over the US.
I’m a lawyer or activist interested in pursuing rights for nonhuman animals outside the US. How can I connect with you?
Email our International Coordinator Shirley Shtiegman at firstname.lastname@example.org! She’ll connect you in turn with an existing NhRP International Legal Working Group or help you form one. Learn more about our international work here.
I know of a nonhuman animal who could use your help. What do I do?
Email us at email@example.com!
Unfortunately, we’re not able to assist with cases that fall outside our mission and work, such as those involving potential veterinary malpractice. To find an attorney to help you in those cases, we recommend this resource page created by our friends at ALDF.
How can I help?
We welcome volunteers of all backgrounds! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll connect you with opportunities online and in your area.
Donations of any amount, especially monthly recurring donations, are vital to our work and help us do more for more animals.
Especially with a mission like ours that aims to fundamentally change the legal status quo, raising awareness of the NhRP on social media and among your friends and family members is always extraordinarily helpful, as are signing and sharing our online petitions. You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and share our posts with friends and family on your own social media pages.