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The NhRP is leading the legal fight to secure fundamental rights for nonhuman animals through a state-by-state, country-by-country, long-term litigation campaign. Our first 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 and other experts, 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.

Learn more about our clients on our clients page. 

Our Approach

“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?”
Justice Barbara Jaffe

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.

Why We Work through the Common Law

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.

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