Q&A about the Nonhuman Rights Project

What is the Nonhuman Rights Project?

It is the first and only organization petitioning courts to recognize that, based on existing scientific evidence, certain nonhuman animals – specifically great apes, dolphins, and elephants – are entitled to such basic legal rights as bodily liberty and integrity.

What exactly is the “scientific evidence” on which you base your claims?

Our legal claims are based on the best scientific findings on genetics, intelligence, emotions and social lives of these animals showing they are self-aware, autonomous beings. Our work is supported by an international group of the world’s most respected primatologists.

Who have been your plaintiffs so far?

In December 2013, we filed lawsuits on behalf of all four chimpanzees currently imprisoned in New York State. Those cases are currently making their way through the appellate courts as we prepare our next series of suits.

Specifically what rights are you seeking?

The right to bodily liberty – i.e. not to be imprisoned.

By bodily liberty, do you mean they should all be set free?

We argue that our first chimpanzee plaintiffs should be freed, then transferred to a sanctuary where they can live out their days with many other chimpanzees in an environment as close to the wild as is possible in North America.

Your first plaintiffs are chimpanzees, and you are also talking about elephants, whales and dolphins. What’s next after that? Dogs and pigs?

Our plaintiffs will be animals for whom there is clear scientific evidence of such complex cognitive abilities as self-awareness and autonomy. Currently that evidence exists for elephants, dolphins and whales, and all four species of great apes. So, for the foreseeable future, our plaintiffs are likely to come from these three groups.

Why do you talk about “nonhuman animals”?

Humans are animals; people tend to forget that. Under current law, the only animals recognized as having legal rights are humans.

Don’t rights come with responsibilities? If you can’t be responsible, then you can’t have rights.

Not true. Millions of humans have fundamental rights that are not linked to responsibilities. Children and physically or mentally impaired adults cannot bear responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have legal rights. You can’t just lock them up or use them for entertainment (at least not anymore).

Surely human rights are only for humans.

That’s right. Human rights are for humans. Chimpanzee rights are for chimpanzees. Chimpanzees do not need the right to vote, for example, but they do need the right not to be held captive in shocking conditions in laboratories or roadside zoos.

Haven’t other organizations tried to do this before?

No. The Nonhuman Rights Project is the first organization to demand legal rights for a nonhuman animal in a court of law. Other organizations have sought protections for certain animals through legislation. But no one has ever used the legal system to demand a legal right for a nonhuman animal.

What is the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare? Which are you focused on?

Animal welfare is about providing better conditions for animals – for example in circuses and laboratories. There are thousands of animal welfare groups doing this important work.

The Nonhuman Rights Project is the only group demanding legal rights for any nonhuman animal. This is about the legal system recognizing that at least some nonhuman animals have legal rights that can be enforced on their behalf, just as human children have legal rights that their parents can enforce on their behalf.

We are asking the courts to recognize, for the first time, that these cognitively sophisticated, autonomous beings are legal persons who have the basic right to not be held in captivity.

What do you mean by “legal person”?

A legal person is an entity capable of having legal rights. These have included humans, fetuses, corporations, and ships. (Even, in Indian courts, idols and holy books have been granted legal personhood.) It’s society’s way of acknowledging that an entity counts in the law.

Not long ago, men generally agreed that women and children could not be legal persons, but were simply the property of men. In this country we said the same thing about African-American slaves. We are asserting, based on clear scientific evidence, that it’s time to take the next step and recognize that certain nonhuman animals cannot continue to be exploited as property.

Why are you going to court rather than trying to pass legislation?

Courts are where a plaintiff goes to enforce rights and obtain justice. State legislatures and the U.S. Congress enact statutes, but common law state judges make law, too, based on precedents and their sense of what is right, good and just. (Contract and tort law are almost entirely common law.) Our argument that a chimpanzee, for example, is entitled to the basic right to bodily liberty is based on precedents and what is right, good and just.

The common law is deliberately flexible. It changes and adapts as morality changes and new experiences and scientific facts come to light. Evidence is mounting every day that certain nonhuman animals are extraordinarily cognitively complex. The common law is ideally suited to recognize this.

How can people get involved in the Nonhuman Rights Project?

We work with the help of volunteer lawyers, scientists, biologists, natural scientists, mathematicians and predictive analytics professionals, as well as with people who are spreading the word about our work through their social networks.

Over the coming years, we will be filing as many cases as we can afford, so contributions are very important, too. We also need funds to help establish sanctuaries for the animals we’re working to free from captivity.

Why should it matter to people that animals should have legal rights?

Abraham Lincoln put it best: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.” When you deny freedom to anyone who deserves it, you undermine the freedom of everyone.

26 Responses to “Q&A about the Nonhuman Rights Project”
  1. Joel D Freeman says:

    Human superiority to animals is a logical fallacy, an ontomological tautology: we use the fact that we can say we are superior as proof we are.

    • ira says:

      The more that I read this website, the more that I agree that the NHRP is pursuing a worthwhile cause. I started researching this issue for a logic-based paper that I have to write arguing for or against the recent ruling in Argentina. On this website I am finding many good arguments, and the understanding that bolsters them.

      Seeing some logic terminology in this comment raised my attention. I hope that the author of this comment is still around to reply to the questions that I am about to pose.

      How is human superiority to animals a logical fallacy? Not that the purpose of the NHRP even has anything to do with arguing this particular part of the issue. A simple argument that would work for many “superiority” questions might read: Humans create multi-storey buildings, therefore they are superior to other animals in this form of building. This argument could be reapplied for any of the countless manifestations of human culture. The same argument could be made for the other side: The non-human great apes are great at living in natural ecosystems without turning them into fields of GM corn, therefore the non-human great apes are superior to humans at not destroying ecosystems.

      This is really not about being superior at all.

      You throw around large words, but that is a sort of logical fallacy too, let us call it an “appeal to those that are afraid of large words”. I think that you are building a straw man. Those that argue for the superiority of humans over non-humans do so with more evidence than just the fact that we can say we are superior. I am curious to know if you have a more robust way of describing the “ontomological tautology” that you allege.

      • TK says:

        I think what Freeman may mean is that our society is still affected by the Judeo-Christian thinking that humans were made in the image of God and are therefore superior to all other animals on the planet. Even though we’ve known for about a century that we are simply products of evolution just like every other living being, it’s hard to shake off that anthropocentrism. Even a few decades ago most scientists thought all nonhuman animals were just automatons responding to environmental stimuli instead of beings that can think (in any form) and feel pain and pleasure. Nowadays it seems every barrier we try to put between ourselves and other animals (e.g. only humans can teach, use language, use tools, have a culture, etc.) is constantly being knocked down.

        It’s not about humans being superior at building cars or cheetahs being superior at running at high speeds. It’s about recognizing that we’ve been blinded for too long by this assumption that we are this separate, elevated form of being and humbly acknowledging that we have much more in common with other animals than we ever thought.

      • Barry Plunkett says:

        Ira, I think you are in agreement with the precept that “superiority” is a subjective concept and does not qualify in any measure to determine any rights in the coexistence of species. To be sure, we are really only addressing the human understanding of this issue as, so far, humans are the only species which appear to have both the intent and the ability to design a reordering or manipiulation of its environment and a large-scale influence on the other species which occupy those environs. To be sure, we also seem uniquely engineered to excell at anthropocentrism, which is likely to be our demise, as we crowd out and destroy the habitat that supports the heirarchy of life. Right now it appears that our planet’s universe of species shall be best served by the elimination of homo sapien. Despit these conclusions, the human I am leads me to hope for a better understanding and awareness of our nexus to our universe and thus our very existence; which may truly be the most unique human trait. But as hinted already, we must not be lulled by a flawed reliance on our subjective capacity to engineer or design a solution to the extermination events we will face as a species. Nature will tire of us at some point and end the offense that is human.

    • saz30b@yahoo.com says:

      I completely agree with the Non Human Rights Projects argument. Indeed, I fully believe that all animals meet that criteria, the only reason it’s not been proved as fact by scientists is because we as a society have not not yet developed the techniques to fully interpret this, i.e. it is actually humans lack of understanding which has previously led traditional scientists and others to hold the incorrect views that humans are superior to animals. We are not superioir at all, we never were,just different. I do believe however that as more people recognise what has been staring the worlds human population in the face forever – that animals simply express themselves differently but still undergo a complex level of autonomy, self awareness, compassion,intelligence. I’m female and 100 years ago I wouldn’t have qualified for a vote in the UK. I would have been chained to the kitchen sink – if I was lucky, (or I like to hope chained to some railing in protest). Thank goodness in the UK we had the suffragets. They used the legal system to change and shape a better future and I support the non human rights project as it’sdoing a similar thing.

  2. Valerie Nordberg says:

    As a European I ask, should you be successful in gaining legal recognition for rights for some animals would these rights apply only to animals in the U.S.A? I feel strongly these rights should be applicable for all animals worldwide. Is there no association anywhere brave enough to attempt this?

  3. Steven Clark says:

    Sorry, but in a world where so many humans lack basic rights, this side show on behalf of animals that in the wild would have no legal protections or animal welfare whatsoever, is actually I find quite abhorrent.

    • Conure Meleni says:

      animal welfare would MEAN being allowed to live free in the wild, not forced to entertain humans.

    • Michael H says:

      Those two things are not mutually exclusive. We cannot necessarily demand that other countries give rights to their people while we can avoid harming animals which were abducted and forced into captivity, and subjected to the worst conditions. Also I don’t see why you cannot fight for both human and animal rights. I don’t believe this website claimed to only wanted rights for animals, and to revoke them from humans.

  4. Roger E says:

    Great cause! Independent conservative here, this isn’t a fake global warming climate change consortium. Unlike most politically charged topics this one is easy to understand both sides of the argument and come up with one’s opinion. Look into an animals eyes and tell me there’s no consciousness and I’ll show you politician (lawyer) that doesn’t lie. Thanks to all the people who took up this extraordinary challenge representing and freeing enslaved conscious animals!

  5. Sarah Egholm says:

    Utterly inspiring! If chimps were eventually given rights, would this pave the way for other animal species? Could it be possible that eventually, small mammals currently kept as pets in cages (rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters etc) could be granted freedom status = the end of the pet trade as we know it?? This is mind-numbingly fabulous work

  6. Humans have been conditioned to see animals as a subspecies, now human evolution has got to a stage that it has a great consciousness our awareness and attitudes are changing, and therefore it is a natural progression for animals to have their equal rights .

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