Planet Earth

Steven Wise He Speaks for the Speechless


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Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, can solve problems, develop culture, and even express self-consciousness. And contrary to the caricatures portrayed in the just-released movie Planet of the Apes, they are struggling for survival— the wild population is 200,000 and dropping. While conservationists seek to protect chimps' habitats and improve their treatment in captivity, animals rights lawyer Steven Wise promotes a more radical approach. In Rattling the Cage (Perseus Publishing, 2000) he argues that chimpanzees ought to be declared "legal persons" and share some of the rights of humans, including freedom from all forms of bodily harm. Wise shared his views with associate editor Josie Glausiusz.

What do you mean by "legal personhood"? Today every human being who is born is a legal person under both international and domestic law. And every single non-human animal, and every single inanimate object, from a tree to a car, is a legal thing. There is this great legal wall that has been constructed over the centuries between the two. I think that that wall is set up in an arbitrary, unfair, irrational, biased place, and it needs to be demolished.

As "legal persons," what rights would chimps be granted? Two basic rights should be given immediately. Firstly, bodily integrity: you can't use them in vivisection, you can't eat them, and you cannot do anything to them that you could not do to, say, a three-year-old human child. The second right to which they are entitled to bodily liberty. You should not be permitted to enslave them by putting them in steel and concrete cages. You can, however, put them in sanctuaries.

Why do you believe they are entitled to these rights? According to an ancient rule of equality, you are entitled to basic legal rights if you are similar to another creature who has those basic legal rights. Say a baby is born in a hospital without a brain. Judges give that little girl the right to bodily integrity. On the other hand, a bonobo like Kanzi [a chimp who has been trained to communicate using symbols] can understand in excess of 3000 human words, can probably count, and functions at the level of a human three-year-old. Kanzi, however, is categorized as a legal thing, while this anencephalic girl who is not even conscious is a legal person.

Why restrict legal rights to chimps? Why not extend them to other primates— or to birds, lizards and spiders? The object of my book is to knock down that wall and establish two rights for two species: chimps and bonobos. After that, I think the gestalt will change and judges will then be able to weigh whether other species are entitled to basic legal rights.

What kinds of species would qualify? In order to have rights, non-human animals need to be conscious. They need to be able to act intentionally. They need to have some sort of primitive sense of self so that they understand that the life they're leading is theirs. I think a strong case can be made for legal rights for gorillas, orangutans, dolphins, elephants, and African gray parrots. At the other extreme, creatures about whom we are confident they don't have "minds" should not be entitled to rights.

If chimpanzees have the same legal rights that humans have, shouldn't they have the same obligations? Could chimps be jailed for murder for killing one another? No. Chimpanzees probably have the mental abilities of, say, a human three-year-old, and they probably have the same sort of moral sense as well. Traditionally in our legal system, if a child is under seven, he or she can't be held liable for anything. The same goes for the insane and for people in comas or in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's. They all have rights, but they don't have responsibilities or duties.

Aren't animals already protected by anti-cruelty statutes? If you happen to do something cruel to one of the very small number of non-human animals, mostly cats and dogs, who are protected by anti-cruelty statutes, then you can be thrown in jail for a felony. But 99.9 percent of non-human animals in the United States are not protected by anti-cruelty or any other laws. The factory-farm industry, because of its political power, has gotten itself exempted from state anti-cruelty statutes. There are ten billion animals killed in the United States every year for food, tens of millions for biomedical research. That's an ongoing slaughter of gargantuan proportions.

Do you think all medical experimentation on animals should be banned? I think that any non-human animal who is self-conscious should not be experimented on. You should treat them the way you would treat a human child. And if you can justify doing a research procedure on a human child, then I would say you then can do it to a chimpanzee. If you can't do it to a child, then you can't do it to a chimpanzee.

What about medical advances that have arisen from animal experimentation? If someone says, "If we kill and torment ten chimpanzees, then we'll find a cure for AIDS," should they be able to do that? No. They should not be able to do that, any more than if someone said, "Hey, if we just kill and torment these ten human children, we will save millions and millions of lives of people who die from AIDS." Would I say they could do it? No. I would say they could not.

What do you think of the sometimes-violent tactics used by animal-rights groups to protest the use of animals in medical research? It's not a good idea. One of the ways in which these animal rights arguments will carry the day is if they're seen as occupying the moral high ground. No matter what they do, people should not be subjected to death threats. They should not be victims of assault and battery. Their property should not be destroyed. There are legal ways of bringing social change, and I think those should be brought unremittingly. But these sorts of illegal tactics I think are morally wrong, are legally wrong, and are ultimately self-defeating.

Do you have any pets? I have two companion animals, a dog and a cat. My dog I got from an animal shelter and the cat was a stray. I don't use the word "pet" because it implies that there is a master-slave or superior-inferior relationship there. The term "companion animals" indicates some sort of more equal relationship.

And finally, why do you use the expression "non-human animals"? It's to continually remind people that humans are animals. People tend to think we form a kingdom all by ourselves; that humans are qualitatively different. The fact is that we are animals. In fact, we're probably all Great Apes.

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