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Elephant in the courtroom? The fight for “nonhuman rights”

Luke Whitmore - Law on the Web

  1. 11 September 2015
  2. Miscellaneous
  3. 0 comments

While the UK’s current government works to do away with the Human Rights Act once and for all, campaigners elsewhere are pushing in the opposite direction – and hoping to extend the concept of human rights to animals.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, an organisation in the United States, is seeking to secure civil rights for what it describes as “appropriate nonhuman animals” by having them classified as “nonhuman persons”, giving them fundamental rights like those already possessed by humans.

They aren’t aiming to have this extended to all animals, only particular creatures believed to possess enough intelligence to be considered people. These include the great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans), elephants, and dolphins and whales. Based on research which has shown these animals to possess high intelligence, social structures, and emotions, the campaigners say that they should be granted a status which will allow them to be legally recognised as people – just not human people.

The current state of animal rights

Many would ask, don’t animals already have rights? Not according to the Nonhuman Rights Project. They argue that “animal rights” in their current form amount to little more than a misleading turn of phrase – while there are laws which govern animal welfare, these as nothing more than similar laws regarding property, they say. The animals themselves do not possess any rights which can be enforced on their behalf, with the Nonhuman Rights Project stating that they are seen as mere “things”.

It might seem ridiculous to say that an animal should be given rights like that of a human, given that, no matter how intelligent an elephant may be, it’s unlikely that one will show up in a courtroom to argue its case any time soon. However, it would be no different from the rights of a child or a person without mental capacity under the law. While these people cannot enforce their own rights, they are still unquestionably people, and possess human rights which can be enforced on their behalf.

The main right the group is seeking for nonhuman persons is the right of bodily liberty and integrity, to prevent intelligent creatures being kept in inhumane conditions and experimented upon. While many captive animals cannot be freed, they argue that these creatures should be kept in conditions as close to their natural state as possible, even if still technically in captivity.

Has the law recognised nonhuman rights?

The fight for nonhuman rights is ongoing, but no legal precedent appears to have been set so far. However, it could happen soon.

One big case undertaken recently by the Nonhuman Rights Project revolves around two captive chimpanzees named Hercules and Leo, who were being subjected to experimentation at Stony Brook University in New York. The organisation brought a court case to have the chimpanzees freed and relocated to a sanctuary, attempting to use a writ of habeus corpus. This is a means by which a person’s imprisonment can be challenged, requiring the custodian to demonstrate the authority under which the prisoner is being detained. Had this writ been granted, it would have indirectly granted “personhood” to the chimpanzees.

The Nonhuman Rights Project’s claim failed, but despite this, the university has said they will no longer use the chimpanzees in experiments. The organisation has also said that they plan to appeal against the court’s decision, so Hercules and Leo may attain legal personhood yet.

This is not the only current case of its type, either. In Argentina, the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights is fighting for the freedom of an orangutan named Sandra, who is currently being kept in Buenos Aires Zoo. Like the Nonhuman Rights Project, the lawyers claim that she is effectively imprisoned and should be either released into the wild or the comparative freedom of an animal sanctuary.

Whatever you think about nonhuman rights, as we continue to discover more about the behaviour and intelligence of other species and find they are far more than just “dumb animals”, it seems inevitable that we will have to confront these issues sooner or later. Who knows how humans will look back on the current treatment of animals in 50 years or so?

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