NhRP 2016 Year in Review

The fight for nonhuman animal rights will take time. Years in the making, it may be years yet before depriving autonomous nonhuman animals of their freedom is no longer legally acceptable.

But a lot of good things can happen in a single year.

To reference the title of the documentary about the NhRP that premiered at the beginning of 2016, Unlocking the Cage is possible only if you have the right key, able to open more than one door and made from material that won’t break under pressure.

For us, 2016 was all about that key: building support at home and abroad and working hard and carefully to achieve outcomes that serve not only our current and future nonhuman animal clients but also, in the long term, other animals and animal advocates.

We recognize that this battle will rage not just inside, but outside, the courtroom—and so in 2016, with the hiring of three new staff members, we officially expanded our mission and work to include public policy and issue-oriented campaigns intended to pave the way for and complement our litigation.

Learn more by viewing this NhRP 2016 Year in Review slideshow:

NhRP 2016 Year in Review

Unlocking the Cage premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2016. Directed by Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker, the documentary informed millions all over the US and around the world—in theaters, at film festivals, and on television—as to who we are, what we do, and how we do it. "Part courtroom drama, part rumination on what separates human beings from other animals," wrote The New York Times A.O. Scott, "the film is above all a sympathetic portrait of an advocate." The documentary's many enthusiastic viewers included writer-comedian Jon Stewart, who said it "made [him] proud to be a primate." Unlocking the Cage premieres on HBO on Feb. 20.

Unlocking the Cage kicked off its US theatrical release with a two-week run at the Film Forum in New York City. Photo: Lukas Maverick Greyson

The audience at the Film Forum applauds after the New York City premiere of Unlocking the Cage on May 25th. Photo: Lukas Maverick Greyson

In May, the New Iberia Research Center announced it would send all 220 of its chimpanzees, including our clients Hercules and Leo, to the newly created Project Chimps sanctuary. We commended this decision: finally these autonomous beings would be able to experience life as chimpanzees, not research subjects. However, because the transfer process will take three to five years by NIRC’s estimation, we demanded, and continue to demand, Hercules' and Leo's immediate and unconditional release to Save the Chimps sanctuary, which remains willing to care for them and other members of their social group at no cost to NIRC.

Thousands of supporters, including primatologist Jane Goodall, joined our Call to Action on Hercules’ and Leo’s behalf. Our litigation and public pressure campaigns have kept in public view the story of their lives in captivity and ensured that stories about their and other chimpanzees' retirement don't overlook or obscure their suffering in research facilities—especially facilities that continue to experiment on other animals. Hercules and Leo remain at NIRC.

At the end of this year, after nine months of litigation, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Judicial Department vacated its two prior rulings and affirmed our absolute right to appeal from a lower court’s refusal to issue a writ of habeas corpus or order to show cause on Kiko’s behalf. Legal scholars Laurence H. Tribe and Justin Marceau and Samuel R. Wiseman submitted amicus curiae briefs that assert that Tommy and Kiko are entitled to use habeas corpus to challenge their detention and that the Third Department erred in its reasoning in Tommy’s case (that chimpanzees aren't entitled to legal personhood or rights because they are unable to bear social duties and responsibilities). Tommy's and Kiko's hearings are set to take place in Manhattan in February or March.

"Tommy is an innocent being who is being actively and unjustly confined. Unless this Court allows Tommy to use the Writ of Habeas Corpus to require his captors to justify his imprisonment, he will be unjustly confined for the remainder of his life."

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"The court’s refusal even to examine the character of Tommy’s detention rested on a misunderstanding of the crucial role the common law writ of habeas corpus has played throughout history."

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We announced in October that our mission and work would now extend beyond litigation into the public sphere in the form of ballot initiatives, referenda, ordinances, calls to action, coalition building, intensified volunteer mobilization and educational outreach, and more. We also welcomed three new staff members (all in newly created positions): Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations Matthew Dominguez, Campaigns Director Lisa Rainwater, and Development Director Sue Lee K. Troutman.

In a case modeled on our habeas corpus lawsuits in the US, an Argentine judge ruled in November that a captive chimpanzee named Cecilia at the Mendoza Zoo is a “non-human legal person” with “inherent rights.” We had the 33-page ruling translated into English, shared it with members of the media and our supporters, and have brought it to the attention of the First Department in Tommy's and Kiko's cases. “That the Court granted AFADA’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus, declared her a non-human legal person as opposed to a ‘thing,’ and ordered her transferred to a sanctuary within six months is another step in a worldwide struggle to bring legal rights to appropriate nonhuman animals,” said NhRP President Steven M. Wise.

In May, Steve accepted numerous awards in Argentina when he visited the Buenos Aires Legislature, the Argentine National Senate, the University of Buenos Aires Law School, the Buenos Aires Bar Association, and the Law School at Bahia Blanca to meet with animal advocates and discuss the NhRP’s work. Steve also delivered the keynote address at the Animal Law Conference in New York City; spoke at the Minding Animals conference in the Netherlands; engaged in a public conversation with artist Terike Haapoja in conjunction with the New York exhibit "The Animal Mirror," and participated in Unlocking the Cage Q&As in Copenhagen, London, Barcelona, and in towns and cities across the US and Canada.

NhRP President Steven M. Wise in Buenos Aires with members of Activistas Animalistas de La Costa, who are advocating on behalf of a captive killer whale named Kshamenk. Photo: Activistas Animalistas de La Costa

Also this year, NhRP Executive Director Kevin Schneider spoke at Harvard and NYU law schools and joined Matthieu Ricard for two events in New York City to celebrate the release of Matthieu’s new book, A Plea for Animals. Kevin and Lisa took part in the first ever New York City United for Animals forum. NhRP Attorney Monica Miller spoke on a panel at the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law's conference on the Endangered Species Act. Kevin, Lisa, Matt, and NhRP attorney Elizabeth Stein attended the New York hearing for Intro 1233, a proposed bill to ban the display of wild or exotic animals for public entertainment or amusement; the NhRP testified in support of the bill.

Matt, Elizabeth, Lisa, and Kevin before the start of the hearing on Intro 1233 at New York City Hall.

This year we had four law review articles accepted for publication: a retrospective on the NhRP's work and an examination of the power of municipalities to enact legislation granting legal rights to nonhuman animals within its municipal borders pursuant to home rule (Syracuse Law Review); an exploration of the ancient and powerful legal tool of manumission through which a private owner could bestow legal personhood upon his slave (University of Tennessee Law Review); and an in-depth analysis of the New York State intermediate appellate court's ruling in People ex rel. Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery (University of Denver Law Review). All four articles will be published in 2017. Each will serve to educate lawyers and judges in the US about the legal theories the NhRP continues to develop.

Elephant artwork donated to the NhRP by Kellie Marz Mele

We met in New York in December to finish preparing a new habeas corpus lawsuit on behalf of three captive elephants. In addition to developing our legal arguments in favor of personhood and rights for elephants, we've recruited some of the world’s leading elephant experts to submit expert affidavits which, we argue, establish that elephants are autonomous beings entitled to the fundamental right to bodily liberty guaranteed by the writ of habeas corpus. We expect to file this case in the first half of 2017.

We've also begun to work on litigation and legislation involving personhood for orcas and are considering filing an additional lawsuit on behalf of a chimpanzee in another US state. And look out for exciting new opportunities to get involved—including with the HBO premiere of Unlocking the Cage—via our soon to be relaunched website! Thank you as always for choosing to be part of this movement. The long-term fight for the recognition and protection of the fundamental rights of all self-aware, autonomous beings continues...

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And, in case you missed any of these articles or shows, here are some highlights of the NhRP’s media coverage this year that we didn’t link to in the slideshow:

“The Nonhuman Rights Project: An Interview with Steven Wise” (Psychology Today, Dec. 2016): Cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff interviews NhRP President Steven M. Wise. “We are on the cusp of changing the legal relationship between many nonhuman animals and humans. It’s time to push harder, as hard as we can. And keep pushing. And keep pushing.”

Almost Human Rights (BBC Radio 4, Dec. 2016): BBC Radio 4 visits our Legal Working Group meeting as part of a wide-ranging show on recognition of nonhuman animals’ personhood and rights.

“Steven M. Wise, Nonhuman Rights Project” (It’s All About Food with Caryn Hartglass, Dec. 2016): Steve talks about our ongoing lawsuits and how and why we’re expanding our mission and work beyond the courtroom.

“Why Granting Animals’ ‘Personhood’ is so Important” (One Green Planet, Oct. 2016): Kate Good writes,“The Nonhuman Rights Project is at the front lines of this battle to obtain personhood for animals. Their team includes lawyers, scientists, and philanthropists all working to form the perfect trifecta to create legal cases that appeal to both logic and heart.”

“We Are Not Alone: Listening to the 8.7 Million Other Animals Who Live on Earth” (Truthout, Oct. 2016): “This is a revolution in how we see animals.” J.P. Sottile cites the NhRP’s work in this thoughtful consideration of the widespread negative impacts of anthropodenial.

“Who Speaks for the Trees? (The Baffler, Sep. 2016): Astra Taylor details efforts to secure rights for animals and the environment. Features an extended discussion of the NhRP’s work. “[NhRP President Steven M.] Wise’s approach tries to provide an answer to a paradox: How can a legal thing sue to challenge its thinghood?”

“Toward Animal Personhood” (Foreign Affairs, July 2016): Steve reviews Wayne Pacelle’s The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals. “These [animal welfare] victories are real, and more will follow. But the humane economy is a temporary solution; Pacelle’s strategy of informing consumers and pressuring businesses to reduce animal suffering is not sufficient in the long run. A legal breakthrough is also necessary.”

“The lawyer fighting for animal rights in ‘Unlocking the Cage’ asks: ‘What kind of being are you?’” (Los Angeles Times, June 2016)

“This Lawyer Is Fighting To Give Chimpanzees Legal Rights” (Huffington Post, June 2016)

“Harambe’s rights were violated long before his tragic death” (New York Daily News, May 2016): Steve comments on the death of gorilla Harambe. “There are problems abound in this situation. Neglectful parents can take their children to zoos to gawk at captive gorillas. Trigger-happy zoo response teams with little idea how to work with the exceedingly smart animals before they are permitted to shoot them. But these are minor problems. The major problem is that the Cincinnati Zoo is legally permitted to treat such extraordinarily cognitively complex and gentle animals as slaves in order to sell tickets to gawkers, and that Harambe, like every other nonhuman animal, was a legal ‘thing’ that lacked the capacity for any legal rights, even the fundamental rights to his life and liberty.”

“This man is trying to help chimps — and soon, elephants — sue their owners” (Washington Post, May 2016)

“Unlocking The Cage Premieres in New York City” (Their Turn, May 2016)

“Review: Unlocking the Cage” (rogertebert.com, May 2016): “There’s import and interest not only in how careful, respectful and scrupulous most of the judges seem but also in how gradual and painstakingly incremental the animal advocates’ strategy is.”

“Chimpanzees are about to have their ‘Blackfish’ moment” (Fusion, May 2016): Ari Phillips on the power and promise of Unlocking the Cage.

“Lawyer says 2 chimpanzees held captive in New Iberia Research Center” (The Times-Picayune, March 2016): “Steven Wise is on a mission to release two chimpanzees, named Hercules and Leo, from what he calls “imprisonment” in Louisiana.”

“‘Personhood’ chimpanzees returned to owners, ending animal rights litigation” (Science, Jan. 2016): Coverage of the New Iberia Research Center’s covert removal of Hercules and Leo to their facility in Louisiana after Stony Brook University announced it would no longer use them in research. This move saw the beginning of our public pressure campaign on their behalf.

“Jane Goodall Deployed in Battle over Star Chimp” (Courthouse News Service, Jan. 2016) Adam Klasfeld writes of the new affidavits submitted in support of the NhRP’s petitions for writs of habeas corpus for Kiko and Tommy and the NhRP’s commitment to these legal battles. A quote from Steve:“People will always call us quixotic, but eventually we’re going to win.”

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