Confronting the core issue of nonhuman animals' legal thinghood.
The Nonhuman Rights Project is leading the fight to secure actual legal rights for nonhuman animals through a state-by-state, country-by-country, long-term litigation campaign. Our groundbreaking habeas corpus lawsuits demand recognition of the legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty of individual great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales held in captivity across the US. With the support of world-renowned scientists, we argue that common law courts must free these self-aware, autonomous beings to appropriate sanctuaries not out of concern for their welfare, but respect for their rights.
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. Our biggest victories so far include:
Legal firsts: In December of 2018, our client Happy became the first elephant to have a habeas corpus hearing. In May of 2015, our chimpanzee clients Hercules and Leo became the first nonhuman animals to have a habeas corpus hearing.
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.
Over the course of three days between September of 2019 and January of 2020, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt heard over 13 hours of arguments on the question of whether our client Happy, as an autonomous being, is entitled to the right to liberty. On Feb. 18, 2020, Justice Tuitt issued a decision that powerfully supports the NhRP’s arguments and brings us one step closer to securing liberty and justice for Happy and other nonhuman animals. Learn more about why Justice Tuitt’s decision is important, both to Happy and the fight for nonhuman rights, here.
In May of 2020, the Islamabad High Court in Pakistan relied on the NhRP’s cases in a decision that “without any hesitation” affirmed the rights of nonhuman animals and specifically ordered the release to sanctuary of an elephant held in solitary confinement at a zoo. Learn more about this decision here.
In April of 2017, litigation modeled on the NhRP’s freed a chimpanzee named Cecilia to a sanctuary. Cecilia is the first nonhuman animal in the world to be recognized as a legal person with rights.
In addition to our work in the US, we’ve begun to help set up and collaborate with legal working groups in England, Spain, France, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Portugal, Argentina, Israel, Turkey, India, and Australia to develop nonhuman rights campaigns suited to the respective legal systems of these countries. You can learn more about them on our blog.
Letter #3 from the Front Lines of the Struggle for Nonhuman Rights: October 2018 to June 2020
Letter #2 from the Front Lines of the Struggle for Nonhuman Rights: January 2018 to September 2018
Letter #1 from the Front Lines of the Struggle for Nonhuman Rights: the First 50 Months
Hercules and Leo
Two former research subjects and the first nonhuman animals to have a habeas corpus hearing.
Beulah, Karen, and Minnie
Torn from their families and forced to perform for humans for decades.
Why We Seek Recognition of Personhood and Rights
As NhRP President Steven M. Wise learned in his decades of work as an animal protection attorney, the legal “thinghood” of all nonhuman animals is the single most important factor preventing humans from vindicating their interests. The few animal protection laws that exist are weak, apply only to certain species in certain circumstances, and grant the animals themselves no rights whatsoever. Animal welfare statutes don’t provide recourse against the mental and physical suffering that results from depriving self-aware, autonomous beings of their freedom, the company of others of their kind, and their natural habitats.
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, especially in matters where the legislature hasn’t definitively spoken. These evolving standards have already significantly changed how we view and treat nonhuman animals outside the courtroom. It’s time for our legal systems to catch up.
Why We File Petitions for Writs of Habeas Corpus
Habeas corpus is a centuries-old means of testing the lawfulness of one’s imprisonment before a court. It was used extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries to fight human slavery, and abolitionists often petitioned for common law writs of habeas corpus on behalf of enslaved individuals. The most well known such case is Somerset v. Steuart (1772) in which the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales granted the writ to a human slave, freeing him unequivocally and essentially transforming him from a legal thing to a legal person. We argue common law courts should do the same for our nonhuman clients.
How We Select Our Clients
Currently, our potential clients are individual great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales living in captivity across the US. They are members of species for whom there is ample, robust scientific evidence of self-awareness and autonomy—qualities the common law already purports to value where humans are concerned. We view these qualities as sufficient, but not necessary, for recognition of common law personhood and fundamental rights. In other words, self-awareness and autonomy are a starting point for our long-term litigation campaign: the most effective starting point, in our view.
Science and Nonhuman Rights
Scientific evidence of nonhuman animals’ cognitive and emotional complexity is vital to our lawsuits. With every lawsuit, we file affidavits from world-renowned scientists and other relevant experts who—on the basis of their own work—support our petitions for writs of habeas corpus on behalf of our nonhuman clients. Collectively, these affidavits speak to why our clients don’t belong in captivity and why they’re entitled to recognition of their legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty.
“- Justice Barbara Jaffe
Isn’t it incumbent on the judiciary to at least consider whether a class of beings might be granted a right or something short of the right under the habeas corpus law?”