Steven Wise: Rattling the Cage--at BOOKSTOCK

Submitted a year ago
Created by
Susan B. Apel

Steven Wise has spent over 30 years of his life working to change the world. He wants nonhuman animals to be recognized as "persons" under the law. He started with chimpanzees; he's moving on to elephants. Dolphins and parrots may be in the queue.

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Wise, an internationally known attorney, is described as "one of the pistons of the animal rights movement." (Yale Law Journal). In 2013, he filed cases in the New York courts, trying to obtain the release of four chimpanzees (Tommy, Kiki, Hercules, and Leo) from confinement, using something called a writ of habeas corpus. It is a legal term that translates to "produce the body," and is traditionally used to challenge unlawful imprisonment of human beings. Wise didn't succeed in the early stages of the New York litigation. Cases involving Tommy and Kiko are on appeal; negotiations are ongoing to have Hercules and Leo moved from their current home at a research center to Save the Chimps in Ft. Pierce, Florida.

His work is no small undertaking in practical, philosophical and legal terms. He estimates that he (and presumably his nonprofit organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project), spent 30,000 hours preparing for the New York cases, and he admits that "   . . . it has taken a long, long time, but I think the world is ready now to take that first step." It's a big one. The law has viewed nonhuman animals as property, not people, and as such, with no recognizable rights, including the right to bodily liberty. If Wise ultimately succeeds, you will not be able to lock up a chimpanzee just as you cannot, without due process, lock up a human individual. 

Philosophically, it is difficult to identify precisely what makes a person a "person." Many people now view animals differently from bygone times. Many circuses, for example, have eliminated animal acts that used to be the mainstay of their entertainment, bowing to pressures about animal abuse. Upwards of 60% of households in the United States have pets, or companion animals; many consider them to be members of the family. The law, slow to respond, has nevertheless changed somewhat as well. While animals have been considered to be property, some family court judges have awarded something akin to "custody" of pets--similar to the disposition of children--in divorce actions. In many states animal abuse has been a misdemeanor. There have been efforts to change those laws to define abuse of animals as felonies and to increase penalties. All of this does not equate with viewing animals as persons under the law, but may indicate some receptivity to the argument.

Wise sees science as his friend in the fight. In many of his cases, including the ones filed in New York, he has collected reams of studies and called expert witnesses to testify to the consciousness and autonomy of animals. For example, Wise says that there is scientific evidence that a chimpanzee is aware enough to understand what confinement is, and that it has a temporal dimension, that is, the imprisoned chimp knows that its condition will remain the same tomorrow, and the days that follow. For that reason, imprisoning primates is particularly cruel. 

Attorney Steven Wise

Lawyers who devote themselves to civil rights causes such as this one are often very patient people. They understand better than anyone the enormity of their task. Wise is hopeful, and quick to point out that in our own lifetimes, certain categories of humans have been denied personhood because of race, or gender, or physical disability. Over time, the law has changed, and it will continue to evolve. Wise is confident that the law will eventually recognize that animals should be accorded certain rights. In a recent TED Talk, Wise views the movement as being not at the beginning, nor the end, but at "the end of the beginning." 

Moreover, Wise appears unflappable in the face of the ridicule that his position, particularly early on, seems to have attracted. He recalls that when he walked into court to argue on behalf of his nonhuman clients, those present would sometimes make barking noises. He seems a little amused. To be sure, it hasn't dimmed his devotion, or one might say--like the charge leveled against Senator Elizabeth Warren that has now become a national meme--"Nevertheless, he persisted."

In addition to continuing with the New York cases, I asked Steve Wise what is next. His response: "We are within 10 weeks of filing our first habeas corpus suit on behalf of elephants in a second state, and are preparing a case involving chimpanzees in a third state." He and his team are also planning "both a legislative and litigation push to have the orcas at SeaWorld in San Diego declared to be legal persons with the right to bodily liberty." Wise seeks to have the orcas moved to a sanctuary that is currently under construction. His work takes him everywhere as he collaborates with lawyers around the world, including in Sweden, Finland, the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Spain, and Australia, to gain rights for nonhuman animals in other countries.

Steven Wise teaches Animal Rights Jurisprudence at Vermont Law School, Harvard, and at several other law schools throughout the United States. He is the author of four books, including Rattling the Cage. His work has been the basis of the HBO film, Unlocking the Cage, recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival. (See the link above to the film's official trailer.) He will be appearing at Bookstock 2017 on Saturday, July 29 at 2:00 p.m. in the Wilder Room of the Woodstock Inn in Woodstock VT. Admission is free and Mr. Wise will be available to sign books. 

For additional information, see Steven Wise's 2015 Ted Talk.

(Featured photo, above: From the film, "Unlocking The Cage." Photo by Chris Hegedus/Pennebaker Hegedus Films, used by kind permission.)


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Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge


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