Legal Personhood: Steven Wise and the battle to free chimpanzees in the U.S.

In light of the court ruling in Argentina that appeared to grant an orangutan her freedom from captivity in a zoo (as much as she can be granted this), I thought I would post a bit more of the personhood research I’ve done for the anthrozoology course – introducing Steven Wise, who has been battling for the same rights for 4 chimpanzees in the States.

Recognising the personhood of other great apes (or other animals more generally), based on growing scientific evidence of continuity, could stop at acknowledgement of their moral rights, but advocates such as Gary L. Francione and Steven Wise believe that this stops short of truly ensuring their protection, since legally these animals in the American setting would still be considered property.   Francione (1993:251-252) argues that legal rights must be pursued:  “If the Declaration on Great Apes is to have any meaning as far as chimpanzees [bonobos], gorillas and orang-utans are concerned, then it is necessary that the concept of legal personhood be extended to them, and they must cease to be treated or viewed as the property of humans.”  Francione (2004:108) talks about a “moral schizophrenia” that human beings (in European-American cultures) display; while animals are seen to have “morally significant interests”, they are at the same time treated as if they have instrumental value only or primarily (they are used as means to an end, and are not seen as ends in themselves), as a result of their continued status as property.  Like Singer, Francione (2004:112-113) focuses on the importance of animal sentience:  “no other characteristic, such as humanlike rationality, reflective self-consciousness, or the ability to communicate in a human language, is necessary.”

Wise (2013, 1996) is in agreement with Francione regarding the importance of legal rights for nonhuman animals.  While he promotes expansion of legal personhood widely (to nonhuman animals), his recent court actions show a practical focus on chimpanzees, since these great apes are considered to be most genetically similar to human beings (our closest living relatives, along with bonobos); this could be an easier win than attempting a court action for an animal that appears to be significantly different to humans.  Wise filed three court actions in the United States on behalf of four captive chimpanzees, arguing for their personhood and thus their current neglect and mistreatment; two are living in a research lab and two are privately owned (Siebert, 2014).  One of these chimpanzees, 26-year-old Tommy, formerly a circus animal, has been kept in a small cage on the Circle L Trailer Sales premises (in New York) for more than 20 years.  Wise contends that these conditions can only cause suffering for an animal with Tommy’s cognitive and social capacities (Yuhas, 2014).  Leading primatologists (and scientists in other fields) have provided affidavits to support this claim.  The legal argument rests on the autonomy of chimpanzees (a limited legal personhood), and also focuses on the right of autonomous beings, or persons, to not be imprisoned against their will (a writ of habeas corpus); the goal is to have Tommy and the three other chimps removed from their confinement and relocated to a sanctuary that provides them with some amount of self-determination.  In court arguments, Wise has been careful not to characterise the issue as one of animal welfare, since this would lead back to animal cruelty legislation (it would frame the issue within existing laws and relationships, rather than pushing boundaries).  Garner acknowledges this problem in the British context:

“Where the interests of animals have been considered, in both the political and academic worlds, it is in terms of their welfare, rather than their rights.  That is, it is widely accepted that we owe some moral obligations to animals, but the interests of humans, it is commonly argued, must come first, and our right to exploit animals in order to further these interests remains sacrosanct.” (2010:123)

An animal welfare focus still allows animals to be used, but it improves the conditions under which they are used.  Such an approach can be dangerous as identified by Davis (2010:271) who describes the possibility of supposedly increasing welfare by engineering animals that could feel less or generally experience less; she provides the example of “creation of insentient, brain-dead animals to fit the procrustean systems of industrialized agriculture”.  Hearings for the three court actions took place in December 2013 and the outcome was unanimous across the Supreme Court Justices deciding the cases (although in Tommy’s case, the Justice expressed sympathy and noted the strength of the argument): habeas corpus could not apply to chimpanzees because chimpanzees were not persons (Grimm, 2013).  Wise and his team are in the process of appealing the decisions (which have so far been unsuccessful).  Despite these defeats, there have been successes and similar moves in other parts of the world that are worth noting.  Dolphins were given protection as nonhuman persons by the government of India in 2013 (Cetacean Rights, 2013).  Legislation has been proposed to give rights to great apes in Spain (however this has not become law), and the Balearic Islands passed legislation in 2007 to grant great apes personhood (Saner, 2013).

We can now possibly add Argentina to the list of countries acknowledging basic rights (to “freedom”) for some nonhuman animals and expanding definitions of personhood – there is some discussion over the actual content of the court’s decision (see Marc Bekoff quoting Steven Wise).  South American countries are definitely places to watch, if we also consider that Bolivia and Ecuador both have rights for nature written into their constitutions.


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