I’ve just watched a great TED talk given by Steven Wise, an American lawyer and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project. The organisation is fighting for basic legal rights for nonhuman animals – things like the right to life and liberty. In 2013 they brought legal action against the State of New York on behalf of four chimpanzees who are currently imprisoned. The litigation is still ongoing but is looking promising for two chimps with a judge last month granting an order to show cause which means the defendants must provide a legal reason for their detention. There is a hearing scheduled for Wednesday 27th May which is this coming week.
The case uses a recourse in common law which is quite old and was first used to free slaves: a writ of habeas corpus. It is a way to report unlawful imprisonment and was used in a famous case in 1772, Somerset v Stewart, in which an enslaved African, James Somerset, was granted freedom. Wise talks about this case in his presentation. The presiding judge in the case said of slavery: “It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.”
Slavery is odious. It’s despicable. As a woman who is the beneficiary of a great social movement to bring equality to my sex, I wholeheartedly support conferring basic rights on chimpanzees and other animals and giving them legal person status. If we support the idea that equality and rights are not dependent on biological characteristics like sex and race, it follows that they are also not dependent on the biological characteristic of species membership.
Chimpanzees share almost 99% of our DNA. We can donate blood to them and they can donate blood to us. They are clever, they see themselves has having a past and a future, they form strong social bonds, and have a social culture. They use tools, care for their young, and they are capable of suffering. They are not things. We have no right to exploit them and to imprison them. If you want to read more about the project or donate to it, go to http://www.nonhumanrights.org