Lawyer Steven Wise is a major player in the growing field of animal rights law. According to The New York Times, he greatly influenced the development of animal rights law as an area of study in the 1980s and became the first person to lecture on the subject at Harvard Law School in 2000.
In an Introduction to Law and Politics class I took this past fall, I learned about the rise of animal rights law and the difficulties animal rights groups faced when filing lawsuits, because they had to be filed on behalf of human plaintiffs who suffered by witnessing the mistreatment of animals. But Wise thinks that animals should be treated as people, not things — meaning that lawsuits could be filed on their behalf instead.
An Op-Doc (defined as a “short, opinionated documentary”) called “Animals are Persons Too” follows Wise on his journey to obtain “personhood” rights for highly intelligent animals, including chimpanzees, elephants, whales and dolphins. Wise, who has dedicated 30 years to formulating his groundbreaking strategy, is in the process of filing lawsuits on behalf of four NY chimpanzees (Tommy, Kiko, Hercules and Leo) — something that has never been done in the U.S. He is assisted by a team of animal law experts, called the Nonhuman Rights Project (Nh.R.P.).
Wise was also featured in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday. The piece describes how Wise first encountered Tommy, who was living in a dungeon-like cage in a trailer after his original owner, David Sabo, had died. The piece quotes the legal memo drafted by Wise and his team, providing an account of the poor conditions in which Tommy was kept:
“Like humans, chimpanzees have a concept of their personal past and future . . . they suffer the pain of not being able to fulfill their needs or move around as they wish; [and] they suffer the pain of anticipating never-ending confinement.”
What Tommy could never have anticipated, of course, huddled just up the road that morning in his dark, dank cell, was that he was about to make legal history: The first nonhuman primate to ever sue a human captor in an attempt to gain his own freedom.
The article also outlines Nh.R.P’s future endeavors, which include plans to file lawsuits on behalf of bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, dolphins, orcas, belugas, elephants and African gray parrots.