Nonhuman Rights Project

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Nonhuman Rights Project
Nonhuman Rights Project Logo.jpg
Founded 2007 (as a project of the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights), officially renamed NhRP 2012
Founder Steven Wise
Type 501(c)(3)
Focus Animal rights
Area served
United States
Method Sustained strategic litigation
Key people
Steven M. Wise, Jane Goodall, Natalie Prosin, Elizabeth Stein, Monica Miller, Michael Mountain

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is an American animal rights nonprofit organization seeking to change the legal status of at least some nonhuman animals from that of property to that of persons, with a goal of securing rights to bodily liberty (the right not to be imprisoned) and bodily integrity (the right not to be experimented on).[1] The NhRP works largely through state-by-state litigation in what it determines to be the most appropriate common law jurisdictions and bases its arguments on existing scientific evidence concerning self-awareness and autonomy in nonhuman animals. Its sustained strategic litigation campaign has been developed primarily by a team of attorneys, legal experts, and volunteer law students who have conducted extensive research into relevant legal precedents.[1] The NhRP filed its first lawsuits in December 2013 on behalf of four chimpanzees held in captivity in New York State.[2] In late 2014, NhRP President Steven Wise and Executive Director Natalie Prosin announced in the Global Journal of Animal Law that the Nonhuman Rights Project was expanding its work into other countries, beginning in Switzerland, Argentina, England, Spain, Portugal, and Australia.[3]


Founded by attorney Steven M. Wise, the Nonhuman Rights Project began in 2007 as a project of the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights.[4] In 2012, the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights officially changed its name to the Nonhuman Rights Project.[5]

Mission and Goals[edit]

According to the NhRP's website, the mission of the Nonhuman Rights Project is, through education and litigation, to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere “things,” which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to “persons,” who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them. To advance this mission, the NhRP's specific goals are:

1. To persuade an American state high court to declare that a specific nonhuman animal is a legal person who possesses the capacity for a specific legal right.

2. To persuade American state high courts to increase the number of legal rights of any nonhuman animal who is declared to be a legal person to the degree to which it should be entitled.

3. To persuade American state high courts to declare that appropriate nonhuman animals possess the capacities for legal rights and to extend legal rights to them accordingly.

4. To educate the legal profession and judiciary about the legal, social, historical and political justice of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s arguments.

5. To communicate to the public and media the NhRP’s mission and the justice of recognizing specific nonhuman animals as legal persons.

6. To educate the courts, the legal profession, the media, and the public about the state of current knowledge about the cognition of those nonhuman animals who are, or who might be, plaintiffs in the Nonhuman Rights Project’s lawsuits.[6]

Legal Claims[edit]

The NhRP argues that nonhuman animals who are scientifically proven to be self-aware, autonomous beings, such as great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales, should be recognized as legal persons under U.S. common law, with the fundamental right to bodily liberty.[7] According to the NhRP, there is nothing in the common law that suggests that legal personhood is limited only to human beings, and certain species fit the profile that courts have used in the past to recognize legal personhood. The NhRP emphasizes the fact that currently all nonhuman animals are considered merely property, or legal "things," without the capacity for rights.[8] In an article published five months before the NhRP first filed suit, Chris Berdick of Boston Globe explains the organization's claims and strategy as follows:

Armed with affidavits from scientists, including Jane Goodall, about chimps’ capacities, [the NhRP] will argue that their plaintiff deserves a right to liberty, and that its captivity is a violation of that right. Win or lose, they plan to bring more habeas petitions on behalf of other animals, hoping to win enough small victories to lay a foundation of precedent for animal personhood. It’s unlikely to be a quick and easy fight, but Wise says he accepts that he’s in the animal-personhood game for the long haul. “This is a long-term, strategic, open-ended campaign,” he says.[9]

Somerset v Stewart[edit]

The NhRP's legal claims on behalf of captive nonhuman animals are based in part on the case of Somerset v Stewart.[10] In that 1772 case, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, the chief justice of the English Court of King’s Bench, issued a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a slave named James Somerset; Somerset was subsequently freed. The NhRP views writs of habeas corpus as a powerful form of redress for the denial of their plaintiffs' right to bodily liberty. Commenting on the importance of the Somerset case to the NhRP in a 2014 article by Charles Siebert in The New York Times Magazine, Wise said:

A legal person is not synonymous with a human being. A legal person is an entity that the legal system considers important enough so that it is visible and [has] interests [and] certain kinds of rights. I often ask my students: ‘You tell me, why should a human have fundamental rights?’ There’s not a single person on earth I’ve ever put that question to who can answer that without referring to certain qualities that a human has.[11]

Court Cases[edit]

The NhRP filed its first lawsuits on December 2, 2013 in New York State on behalf of four captive chimpanzees, demanding that the courts grant them the right to bodily liberty via a writ of habeas corpus and immediately send them to a sanctuary affiliated with the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.[12]

The NhRP's New York plaintiffs are Tommy, a privately owned chimpanzee living in a cage in a shed on a used trailer lot in Gloversville, NY; Kiko, a privately owned chimpanzee living on private property in Niagara Falls, NY; and Hercules and Leo, two chimpanzees owned by New Iberia Research Center and loaned to the Anatomy Department at Stony Brook University for use in locomotion research.[13] In response to the lawsuit, Tommy's owner, Patrick Lavery, defended the chimpanzee's living conditions: "He's really got it good. He's got a lot of enrichment. He's got color TV, cable and a stereo."[14]

All three petitions for writs of habeas corpus were denied, allowing for the right to appeal. The judge in Tommy's case, the Hon. Joseph Sise, said in an hour-long hearing as to whether Tommy should be considered a legal person that

[The NhRP's] impassioned representations to the Court are quite impressive. The Court will not entertain the application, will not recognize a chimpanzee as a human or as a person who can seek a writ of habeas corpus under Article 70 [a procedural statute]. I will be available as the judge for any other lawsuit to right any wrongs that are done to this chimpanzee because I understand what you’re saying. You make a very strong argument. However, I do not agree with the argument only insofar as Article 70 applies to chimpanzees. Good luck with your venture. I’m sorry I can’t sign the order, but I hope you continue. As an animal lover, I appreciate your work.[15]

The judge in Kiko's case, the Hon. Ralph A. Boniello III, also held a hearing, denying the NhRP's petition on the grounds that Kiko is not a person for purposes of habeas corpus and stating that he did not want to be the first “to make that leap of faith.”[16] The judge in Hercules' and Leo's case, the Hon. W. Gerard Asher, did not hold a hearing, writing in a decision[17] that he was denying the petition for habeas corpus on the basis that chimpanzees are not considered legal persons.


Tommy's Case[edit]

The NhRP appealed the lower court's decision in Tommy's case. Oral arguments at the appellate court level took place on October 8, 2014 before the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department in Albany, NY.[18][19][20] The hearing was covered by The New York Times,[21] Wired,[22] BBC World News,[23] Above The Law, [24] Good Morning America,[25] FOX News' Shepard Smith Reporting,[26] and others. On December 5, 2014, the appellate court issued its ruling[27] in Tommy's case.[28][29] Noting that the NhRP “requests that this Court enlarge the common-law definition of ‘person’ in order to afford legal rights to an animal,” the Court’s decision was that “We decline to do so, and conclude that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person’ entitled to the rights and protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus.” On December 18, 2014, the NhRP announced that it had filed a motion for permission to appeal to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, in Tommy's case, citing "several significant errors of law" in the appellate court's decision.[30][31][32]

Kiko's Case[edit]

The NhRP also appealed the lower court's decision in Kiko's case. Oral arguments at the appellate court level took place on December 2, 2014 before the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, Fourth Department in Rochester, NY. On January 2, 2015, the appellate court issued its decision[33] in Kiko's case, denying the writ on the grounds that “habeas corpus does not lie where a petitioner seeks only to change the conditions of confinement rather than the confinement itself. We therefore conclude that habeas corpus does not lie herein.” Commenting on the Court's decision in a blog post on the NhRP's website, Wise wrote:

Yesterday the Fourth Department ignored both the Second Department and the Third Department. It threw out Kiko’s case not because the NhRP had no right to appeal and, significantly, not because Kiko could not be a “person.” It was, the court wrote, because not even a human being can use a writ of habeas corpus to move from a place of stark imprisonment to another place of vastly more freedom. (The NhRP is demanding that Kiko be moved from his solitary caged confinement to the spacious sanctuary of Save the Chimps in Fort Pierce, Florida, where he will live his life on a semi-tropical island surrounded by dozens of other chimpanzees.) Every single one of the eight cases cited by the Fourth Department concerns a human prisoner convicted of a crime using a writ of habeas corpus for some other purpose other than seeking immediate release from prison. The Fourth Department’s decision treats Kiko as if he were a human prisoner convicted of a crime and ignores numerous cases spread over 200 years involving humans who were NOT prisoners convicted of a crime successfully using a writ of habeas corpus to move from one place to another. The NhRP will therefore be asking the Fourth Department for leave to file an appeal to the Court of Appeals within the next week. If the Fourth Department says “no,” we will ask the Court of Appeals itself for leave to appeal.[34]

The NhRP plans to file a motion for permission to appeal the decision in Kiko's case to the New York Court of Appeals, as they did in Tommy's case.

Opposition and Counter-Arguments[edit]

Some legal scholars have publicly opposed the NhRP's mission and goals. Federal appeals judge Richard Posner, for example, is opposed to legal personhood for nonhuman animals on the basis that the law grants humans special status not because of their intelligence but out of "a moral intuition deeper than any reason that could be given for it and impervious to any reason that you or anyone could give against it."[9] Attorney and Pepperdine Professor of Law Richard Cupp has argued that animal welfare laws should be sufficient for ensuring the well-being of captive nonhuman animals and that the NhRP's strategy is unnecessarily extreme. In an interview with the James Gorman of The New York Times following the organization's first lawsuits, Cupp said, "The courts would have to dramatically expand existing common law for the cases to succeed.”[35] In response, the NhRP argues that an animal welfare approach is insufficient and ineffective in terms of ending the practice of keeping chimpanzees and other cognitively complex nonhuman animals in captivity and also does nothing to address the larger issue of their status as legal property.[36]

The NhRP and PETA's Slavery Lawsuit[edit]

In October 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a complaint in a California federal district court alleging that SeaWorld was enslaving its captive orcas in violation of the orcas’ rights under the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[37] The NhRP, while acknowledging that the orcas might be considered slaves according to common usage of the term, vehemently opposed the lawsuit on the grounds that it was strategically misguided and counter-productive; the NhRP's critique highlighted the existence of differing strategies for achieving rights and protections for nonhuman animals.[38] "The claim that an orca is enslaved within the meaning of the Thirteenth Amendment is unlikely even to receive a single vote from a federal appellate court in 2011," Wise wrote on the NhRP's website. "It is unthinkable that the present United States Supreme Court would agree."[39] In January 2012, the presiding judge, the Hon. Richard Miller, granted permission to the NhRP to appear in the case as an amicus curiae (or Friend of the Court) to, as Wise said, "ensure that the orcas’ best interests are being properly represented, that their legal status is advanced, and that an unfavorable ruling inflicts the least possible harm on the development of an animal rights jurisprudence.”[40][41]

In February of 2012, the case was dismissed. The judge wrote in his ruling that "the only reasonable interpretation of the Thirteenth Amendment's plain language is that it applies to persons, and not to non-persons such as orcas."[42] In an interview with the blog Earth in Transition, Wise said of the ruling

Sometimes it’s better to do nothing than to do something harmful. The problem with the PETA suit is that it was doomed from the beginning, and we in the Nonhuman Rights Project immediately recognized that. When you study legal process you learn that the first cases in a new area often tend to take on an unusual level of importance. When you litigate in a novel area, you want to begin with your strongest suits in the most favorable jurisdictions. The rule for the Nonhuman Rights Project is: Win big and, if we must lose, lose small. PETA had virtually no chance of even winning small and a tremendous chance of losing big.[43]

Unlocking the Cage[edit]

Documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus announced in July 2012 that their next project, Unlocking the Cage, would follow the NhRP's efforts to achieve legal rights for nonhuman animals.[44] In April 2014, Pennebaker-Hegedus Films released a preview of the as-yet-unfinished documentary in the form of a New York Times Op-Doc called Animals Are Persons Too.[45]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "About Us". NhRP Website. Nonhuman Rights Project. Retrieved 3 September 2013. 
  2. ^ "Rights Group Is Seeking Status of Legal Person for Captive Chimpanzee". New York Times. New York Times. December 2, 2013. Retrieved 28 August 2014. Chimpanzees are not people, no matter how they are dressed up for commercials, but perhaps they are close enough that they deserve some of the same rights humans have. 
  3. ^ "The Nonhuman Rights Project: Coming to a Country Near You" (PDF). Steven Wise, Natalie Prosin. Global Journal of Animal Law. December 2014. Retrieved 18 December 2014. 
  4. ^ "2013 is here, and we are ready!". NhRP Website. Nonhuman Rights Project. January 16, 2013. Retrieved 3 September 2013. 
  5. ^ "What Is The Nonhuman Rights Project?". NhRP Website. Nonhuman Rights Project. June 2, 2012. Retrieved 3 September 2013. 
  6. ^ "Mission, Goals, and Values". NhRP Website. Nonhuman Rights Project. Retrieved 28 August 2014. 
  7. ^ "The Story of James Somerset". Gooseberry Productions. Gooseberry Productions. 2 December 2013. 
  8. ^ "Should a Chimp Be Able to Sue Its Owner?". Charles Siebert. New York Times Magazine. 23 April 2014. 
  9. ^ "NAPSA Statement on NhRP Lawsuits". NAPSA. NAPSA. Retrieved 2 December 2013. 
  10. ^ "A Chimp’s Day in Court: Inside the Historic Demand for Nonhuman Rights". Brandon Keim. Wired Magazine. 6 December 2013. 
  11. ^ "Rights or not, caged chimp deserves better". Chris Churchill. The Albany Times-Union. 7 December 2013. 
  12. ^ "Sise Hearing Transcript" (PDF). NhRP Website. Nonhuman Rights Project. 10 December 2013. 
  13. ^ "Judges' Decisions and Next Steps". NhRP Website. Nonhuman Rights Project. 10 December 2013. 
  14. ^ "Asher Decision, Suffolk County" (PDF). NhRP Website. Nonhuman Rights Project. 10 December 2013. 
  15. ^ "Appeals Court Sets Date for First Chimpanzee Lawsuit". NhRP Website. Nonhuman Rights Project. 12 September 2014. 
  16. ^ "MEDIA ALERT: New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division Hears Oral Arguments in Internationally-Renowned "Tommy" Chimpanzee Rights Case Filed by Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP)". Market Wired. 1 October 2014. 
  17. ^ "Judges Hear Chimp’s Plea to Be Free, and Retired". Jesse McKinley. New York Times. 8 October 2014. 
  18. ^ "New York State Court Hears Landmark Chimp Personhood Case". Brandon Keim. WIRED. 9 October 2014. 
  19. ^ "The battle to make Tommy the chimp a person". Jon Kelly. BBC News Magazine. 8 October 2014. 
  20. ^ "Appeals Court Hears Chimpanzee Rights Case". Joe Patrice. Above The Law. 10 October 2014. 
  21. ^ "Case Could Decide Chimpanzee's Personhood". GMA. Good Morning America. 9 October 2014. 
  22. ^ "Are Chimpanzees People?". Shepard Smith Reporting. FOX News. 16 October 2014. 
  23. ^ "Appellate Decision in Tommy's case" (PDF). New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department. 5 December 2014. 
  24. ^ "Case for Chimpanzee Rights Rejected by Appeals Court". Brandon Keim. WIRED. 5 December 2014. 
  25. ^ Charles Siebert (16 December 2014). "Should Animals Have The Same Rights As People?". Popular Science. 
  26. ^ "In 'Tommy' Case, NhRP Seeks Appeal to New York's Highest Court". NhRP. NhRP. 18 December 2014. 
  27. ^ "NY Lawsuits Tommy Court of Appeals Documents". NhRP. NhRP. 18 December 2014. 
  28. ^ "And So to the Court of Appeals". Steven Wise. NhRP. 17 December 2014. 
  29. ^ "Appellate Decision in the Case of Kiko". NhRP. NhRP. 2 January 2015. 
  30. ^ "Considering the Humanity of Nonhumans". Jim Gorman. New York Times. 9 December 2013. 
  31. ^ "PETA: SeaWorld Keeps Orcas in Slavery". Associated Press. Associated Press. 26 October 2011. 
  32. ^ "Is PETA v. SeaWorld a Bad Idea?". Spencer Lo. Animal Blawg. 5 February 2012. 
  33. ^ "PETA's Slavery Lawsuit - A Setback for Animal Rights". Steven M. Wise. Nonhuman Rights Project. 10 November 2011. 
  34. ^ "Federal Judge Allows NhRP to Appear as Friend of the Court in PETA v. SeaWorld". Steven M. Wise. Nonhuman Rights Project. 26 January 2012. 
  35. ^ "PETA's SeaWorld Slavery Case Dismissed By Judge". Joanna Zelman. Huffington Post. 9 February 2012. 
  36. ^ "PETA v. SeaWorld: The Aftermath". Earth in Transition. Earth in Transition. 9 February 2012. 
  37. ^ "'War Room' Directors Making Animal Rights Documentary". Degen Pener. The Hollywood Reporter. 25 July 2012. 
  38. ^ "Animals Are Persons Too". Pennebaker-Hegedus Films. New York Times. 25 April 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]