Isn’t it time for us to reject slavery in all forms?

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


  1. Wooooo big topic. Do you draw the line anywhere? Pets? Cattle kept for their milk? Or as beef herds? Zoos? Even ones with breeding programmes? Is it the idea of captivity per se or how humane it is? I’m not sure where I stand in truth. Keeping chimps feels wrong but I’m not sure choosing a creature so close to us in many ways helps if you extrapolate from it. To take a thought experiment domesticated dogs would either not survive or become a pest if released and maybe we are too far gone in how we have adapted those species (the same might be argued with livestock) whereas captured wild animals should not be kept in conditions anathema to their nature. I’m also ambivalent about zoos having toured behind the scenes at London Zoo and seen what they do with endangered species. As I say, a real big topic. Well done for raising it! Hope you generate a good debate.

    1. I probably should have mentioned that these four chimps, if the case is successful, will be released into the care of the Save the Chimps Sanctuary in Florida. So in a sense they will still be in captivity, they’ll just no longer be in a cage.

      Granting personhood to non-human animals doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t have animals as pets, although it might make us rethink the relationship and how we care for them. What it will mean is that they’re included in the principle of equality of interests and we must take their interests into consideration. There are humans who depend on other humans for survival – infants, severely disabled humans – and releasing them “out into the wild” would be cruel. Granting freedom to animals doesn’t mean abandonment, it just means we must take their interests into consideration.

      It’s tricky knowing where to draw the line, I do agree. But not knowing where to draw the line is not an excuse to refuse to do it, or to draw it somewhere arbitrary like the species boundary. The most important thing to consider is whether a creature can suffer. Membership of a species has no relevance in morality. But the capacity for pain and suffering does and, to a lesser extent, self-consciousness and autonomy.

      1. Yes well put I endorse all of that. I went to an exhibition in Nottingham recently around the policies of a South American government (I wish I could remember which) that has given statutory protection, equivalent to human rights, to the ecology thus allowing interested third parties, pressure groups etc to raise a case against, for instance, mining companies to ensure the who ecological system and not just the area immediately surrounding the mine is taken into account. One likes to think our own planning laws with the requirement for an Environmental Impact Assessment (a requirement of European Community law let it not be forgotten – they do do some good! That wasn’t aimed at you, Rachel, just generally!) before planning applications can be considered would have he same effect but the way I understood it, it sounded far stronger and therefore more attractive. This sounds like the same an approach as for the non human fauna (I should probably have watched the TED before responding – lesson one of the day!)

  2. I can see of no reason to cage an animal. If a rescued wild animal is unable to be returned to the wild then it should live in the best possible condition it can. We owe it that.
    Someone has to speak for those who cannot. Good post 🙂

  3. This is a big, and far reaching subject. I am amazed at how easily you dance effortlessly from a quaint family outing on your bikes to such divisive moral thinking. TabGental makes a good point. Where do you draw the line? Personally, I do not support the idea of zoos, and have spoken out publicly against our local aquarium. Then again, I have 2 cats as pets. Is it right that we have domesticated cats, dogs, and many other animals? Why do we think we need to do this? Nice post, and I hope it sparks a lively debate.

    1. I have lots of interests 🙂

      This is a topic that has interested me for a decade or more now. Ever since I read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer I have been in favour of granting basic rights to the great apes and signed the world declaration on great primates many years ago:

      As I mentioned in my reply to TanGental, I forgot to say in my post that these chimpanzees will be released into the care of a sanctuary in Florida if the action is successful. So it’s not like they’re going to be sent back out into the wild. Granting personhood to chimpanzees does not mean we cannot care for them in a sanctuary, but it would mean we can’t keep them in a cage and perform experiments on them.

  4. I can see that 🙂

    I am familiar with Singer’s work, and certainly agree that the distinction between human and animal is completely arbitrary. In Vancouver, where I currently live, city dwellers have learned to co-exist with a growing population of coyotes and black bear. Not everyone agrees, but we go to great lengths not to disrupt their environments. When a black bear wanders into someones yard, it is carefully captured and relocated back into its natural setting. When we play golf on the city courses, or walk in the local parks, it is not uncommon to see coyotes roaming around. Every effort is made to sustain these populations. In the past, this was certainly not the case.

  5. I agree with you completely Rachel. And I’m a big Peter Singer fan.
    Non-human animals and human animals should certainly all
    have the same basic animal rights. I think that of all the egregious things
    that humans are doing, history with judge us most harshly for the way we treat other
    animals, especially those whose meat we eat. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t
    have pets, as long as we give the pets the same autonomy they
    would have in nature. Here in the US, it is corporations that have
    legal personhood, not animals.
    I have written of this on my blog, most recently about chicken farms.
    And thanks for shareing the site. I didn’t know of that site.
    Good post, Rachel.

  6. Not sure where this would fit in with non-humans rights!

    Sija, the sexy seal, banished from Cornwall.

    The Cornish Seal Sanctuary takes in seals rescued from the wild, often through injury caused by Winter storms, and tries to return them to the wild if possible. Those it cannot return, it looks after in Gweek or, as in this case, has to send them elsewhere.

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