Lauren Choplin is the communications director of the Nonhuman Rights Project. She spoke with ACE Researcher Maria Salazar on July 23, 2019. This is a summary of their conversation.
What do you consider to be the Nonhuman Rights Project’s (NhRP) three biggest accomplishments from the past year?
Our biggest victories in the last year were the Fahey opinion and our elephant client Happy’s habeas corpus hearing. In the summer of 2018, a judge on New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, issued an opinion in our chimpanzee rights cases, on behalf of Tommy and Kiko. He made clear that chimpanzees are not mere legal things, and the New York courts’ failure to seriously consider our cases amounts to a “manifest injustice.”
Tommy and Kiko’s cases had actually come before the Court of Appeals a few years ago when the same judge had ruled against taking up the NhRP’s appeal (as the Court does with most cases that come before it). In his opinion, he said that he regretted his prior decision; to have a judge do this on the record is a big deal and a sign of the progress we have made in only a few short years.
For us, the Fahey opinion is evidence that the status quo for animals under the law is being reconsidered. It’s a slow process, but it shows change is underway and much sooner than we expected. The downside, of course, is that the opinion didn’t free the chimpanzees, so they’re still in captivity (we continue to work behind the scenes to free them and are planning a new grassroots advocacy campaign on their behalf).
A few months later, a New York judge issued the world’s first habeas corpus order on behalf of an elephant in our client Happy’s case. She had a habeas corpus hearing in December, which was the first time a judge heard arguments in support of an elephant’s personhood and right to liberty. Her case is ongoing.
Also this past year, in a footnote in another New York court case—one that was unrelated to our work and about a vandalized car—a New York appellate court cited to our chimpanzee right cases to make the point that it is common knowledge that animals are not things, but persons with the capacity for rights. This example shows that even when we’re not prompting them, the courts in New York agree that animals are not legally equivalent to objects, which is the kind of progress that we’ve been looking for. We want nonhuman animal legal personhood and rights to come across as common knowledge, not as something that’s radical or misaligned with existing values and principles of justice.
Leaving aside our litigation, we are at work preparing to launch the world’s first true nonhuman rights legislation. This legislation will have actual legal ramifications; it won’t be symbolic. There’s not much we can publicly discuss yet, but we’ve made a lot of progress toward building a coalition and meeting with legislators to get ready to launch this type of legislation in a U.S. city. We expect this to happen early next year. We’ve been heartened to see that legislators are more receptive than we initially might have thought.
As for another accomplishment, the media has consistently recognized the boldness and uniqueness of our mission to change how we legally protect nonhuman animals. The immediate goal will always be to get nonhuman animals out of their captivity, but in a larger sense, what we’re trying to do is change the conversation.
We’ve also seen improvement internationally. In India, there are judges who have declared that all animals are legal entities with rights; these cases aren’t directly related to us, and may turn out to be largely symbolic, but it just speaks to the larger paradigm shift that we’re pushing for. We’re currently working with people in India to test the ramifications of these rulings.
What do you consider to be the NhRP’s major strengths?
We are laser-focused on remedying a systemic issue that affects all animals one way or another, and we’re doing so based on existing values and principles of justice. We’re trying to show that there’s still an urgent need and possibility for real change, even under the umbrella of what we already value under the law. We’re working for something bold, but we’re also trying to show that it’s consistent with what we already value. We seek change that has practical ramifications for animals, not change that is merely symbolic.
What do you consider to be the NhRP’s major weaknesses?
We’re still small in terms of our staff, which limits what we can do in some ways. On a related note, we’re still working on building out a volunteer program. We had one in the early days before we filed our first lawsuits; we actually had a small army of legal volunteers at that time. Now, however, we’re trying to figure out how to mobilize volunteers more systematically and in new ways. We’re currently engaging and mobilizing our supporters using petitions and other online actions in a way we weren’t before, which is good, but there is a lot more we want to do as time and resources allow.
What does the NhRP do to create or revise its strategic plan?
We all work remotely, so when we need to discuss strategy we often communicate over email, and we have frequent phone calls when rulings or developments in a campaign come up. After jumping on the phone quickly, we try to develop a consensus on how we want to proceed. In my mind, it’s democratic in that way and makes sense insofar as we have a lot of overlapping duties in terms of our jobs.
We also have yearly retreats, and there is one coming up. Most of our staff gets together, we work through the bigger picture issues, we check in with one another to make sure that we are fulfilling our objectives across departments, and we determine what we could do better. In the last couple of years, these conversations have centered a lot around how we can most effectively branch into legislation, develop new messaging, and overcome messaging challenges. We try to revisit what we’re doing as often as we can. Sometimes that’s small scale; sometimes that’s large scale.
We also use a guiding document called a Ladder of Clarity. It’s based on Evan Wolfson’s work and the Freedom to Marry movement and has to do with how to achieve social justice through the courts and a broader campaign. We use that as a model for our work. We’re going to revisit this document at our retreat and see if our short-, medium-, and long-term goals still look like what they did a year ago.
How is the board involved in this decision-making process?
Our board is the same as it was when we started. The most prominent member of our board is Dr. Jane Goodall. We had an event with her in April in the Los Angeles City Hall to celebrate her birthday; the purpose was in part to get the conversation going in California about nonhuman rights. She is totally supportive, but we try to respect her time and the fact that she has her own organization, the Jane Goodall Institute, and has to balance their work and our work. She has weighed in on some decisions as has our other external board member, with whom NhRP President Steven Wise regularly consults. But on the whole, our decision making takes place without much board involvement.
Who makes the final decisions?
It depends on the issue. If there is no clear decision-maker, it would probably be Steve, but he’s always deferential to the department heads for departmental-specific questions. For example, if it’s a public relations/communications type of a decision, he recognizes that he may not be the best person to give the final answer. At the same time, as we expand and encounter novel issues, he understandably wants to protect what the organization was at the beginning and what it will be past our lifetimes. We all share that goal and are almost always able to build consensus around all the organizational decisions we’ve made.
What’s the best decision you’ve made as a leader?
What I am most proud of is elevating the voices of our supporters and allies on our blog. It’s important to me that we make clear how much we value the work and passion of people who care about nonhuman animal rights and are fighting in their own ways to bring about change and help individual animals held captive in their communities.
What is the biggest mistake or hardest decision you’ve made as a leader?
Once we issued a statement that criticized the work of another charity regarding a specific lawsuit because we thought it could threaten the whole movement. We still stand by our assessment of their approach, but I think we all regret the message our statement seemed to send to our supporters who are understandably wary of animal advocacy charities critiquing one another. Today, having taken to heart our supporters’ responses, I would not issue that kind of statement.
Is there a decision you’ve made recently that you haven’t been able to follow through on?
The best I can think of is that sometimes our plans get thrown off course because we get unexpected developments in our court cases. Sometimes, planning is difficult in that way because we never really know what’s coming down the pike or when.
How do you measure the outcomes of the NhRP’s most important projects or programs at present?
We’re still working on doing that more effectively. It’s difficult because a lot of it is not quantitative but qualitative. We analyze rulings, media coverage, and things like that, and we keep track of the number of law review articles that pertain to our work. All of these things reflect the robust legal conversation that’s happening around our work, which is important to us because it helps create a climate where the change we want to see is more likely to happen.
Does the NhRP engage in formal self-assessments?
I’m not sure how formal an assessment I would call it—we don’t do it on a schedule, per se. However, we’re always trying to revisit what we’re doing to make sure it’s the most effective thing we can do. Even in editing a single document, we’ll have an intense debate within “track changes,” and then that debate could become a larger conversation. For instance, as issues arise, we try to look as far into the future regarding them as we can and draw on past experience, but we don’t have a formal system per se, other than our yearly retreats.
Do you have retrospective or postmortem meetings following major projects?
We definitely do that. For example, when we get a ruling, in the immediate sense what we’re doing is getting a press release out quickly and analyzing the ruling. Then, we take a step back in the next couple of weeks and figure out where it leaves us. That pulls in all the departments because there’s a communications part to that, and there’s obviously a legal part to that, and now there’s a grassroots advocacy campaign part to that.
Since we started building out grassroots advocacy campaigns, we want to make sure that everything we’re doing is all working together synergistically. Again, we don’t schedule it necessarily—it just seems to organically happen. It’s really around developments as they occur. If it’s important for somebody to revisit the way we’re talking about a particular client or situation, then they put that idea to the group in an email. We’re open to getting on a call and figuring it out.
What changes has the NhRP made recently? Has your organization taken any steps to improve programs that weren’t successful?
We recently hired a new development director to help us more systematically engage with donors. For instance, we played hopscotch with our CRM (customer relationship management) system. Now that we finally settled on the one we like, she’s helping us get a handle on who our supporters are and making sure that we interact with them in the most effective and meaningful ways possible.
We hired her a couple of months ago. Our previous director was here a little over a year. When we skipped to a new CRM, she helped us get our data in order and fill in any gaps we had; we hadn’t concentrated on that in the early years. So this new development director is continuing the work of the former one.
Also, in the last year, we worked with a content marketing firm to work on our branding and social media. We don’t have an in-house graphic designer, so we need their help to professionalize our graphics as we expand, especially for our Instagram following. It has been fun but challenging. Now, we’re trying to continue their work on our own.
Additionally, we’re in the beginning stages of figuring out how to build out the volunteer program, including possibly hiring a volunteer coordinator. We’re also still figuring out the best system for working together remotely. As of now, we do a pretty good job, but we’re exploring better ways of managing projects and calendars. Everyone has different preferences, so it’s hard to make everyone happy, but I’m confident that we’ll figure out what the best platform is!
Have you cut off any unsuccessful programs to make room for more effective ones?
I wouldn’t say we’ve sacrificed any programs. The part of our charity that always gets the short end of the stick is the volunteer program, but we’re working to rebuild it now that we have new opportunities and resources (and a lot more people who want to help!).
What piece of evidence would change your charity’s approach to helping animals?
Actually, something already has. We are working with Professor Garrett Broad at Fordham University on surveys and focus groups—I think ACE is funding a part of it. We’re doing this to figure out what type of messaging resonates and what doesn’t with everyday people who haven’t heard of, say, sanctuaries or given much thought to the idea of rights (even their own human rights).
I think across the board, everyone has found this helpful. For example, people may not understand what personhood is and even find the term alienating, so we’ve shifted to holding off on discussing personhood when we don’t need to and focus instead on what it means to have a right or not have a right.
Our court filings have to remain as they are because they need to accomplish a certain set of tasks, but broadly speaking, we’re trying to shift our messaging where appropriate and make it more accessible, whether for an audience of diverse supporters or the media.
The message is still a challenge for us though because there are some people who still think that if you recognize the rights of an animal, then it’s going to somehow water down the rights of a human. However, what we say is that if you recognize the rights of an animal based on the values and principles of justice that underlie human rights, then you’re only going to make those values that much stronger. That’s the way we want to frame the conversation.
Obviously there is an ongoing threat to human rights we are cognizant of, and from our point of view, the more we can do to say that liberty and equality matter, the better—no matter where you find it across species. That’s the way forward for everybody.
How would you describe the NhRP’s work culture?
I think it is pretty collaborative. I don’t know what it’s like at other charities, but it seems to be collaborative, open, and accommodating. There’s no pressure to work crazy hours. You have a lot of autonomy in your own department. Sometimes we have to work extra hard to make sure that each department knows what the other departments are doing. It may be an issue with working remotely, but sometimes we are a little bit blocked off from each other and don’t always see what everyone else is doing.
In all though, everyone seems to get along pretty well. Everyone’s respectful. I don’t see any pressing issues in that regard. The only problem is the strain of having so much to do and wishing we had more people working for us!
Has the NhRP benefited from having diverse members? If so, can you give an example?
Diversity is important to us, and thankfully, it seems that everyone is cognizant of their own biases.
For example, in our litigation, we talk about human slavery and how it was brought to an end in the U.S. due in part to litigation. When we talk about animals being enslaved, judges don’t react well to that, and neither do members of the public. We’ve had more than one conversation about this term with staff over the last couple years, including staff who are women or part of a minority group, and as a result we’ve taken care to avoid using the term “slave” or “enslaved” in the public sphere to describe our clients unless absolutely necessary because some people understandably find it alienating, even if it makes sense as a legal analogy.
If you have worked collaboratively with historically marginalized communities, has it benefited you? If so, how?
We haven’t, and I think we agree that we need to do more concerted outreach to those communities to make sure that the work we’re doing is intersectional and that our arguments and approach resonate with systematically marginalized humans, whether it’s disabled people, black people, refugees, or any disenfranchised group. The goal is always to invite people to see nonhuman rights not as a threat to human rights, but as part of the same long and ongoing social justice fight.
If you became aware of harassment taking place in your charity, how would you handle it?
We have a policy in place for reporting harassment, and I personally wouldn’t hesitate to report any harassment and would have confidence it would be dealt with properly.
How does the NhRP’s work feed into the overall animal advocacy movement?
We try to have one foot in animal advocacy and one foot in social justice, broadly speaking. We view our role as, first, changing the conversation and helping to shift people to embrace a rights paradigm instead of a welfare paradigm, which we think isn’t going to work in the long term and isn’t working for millions of animals now.
Secondly, we work to secure meaningful rights-based victories along the way that will help all animal advocates. We are also working with and support other groups around the world who are interested in pursuing rights-based initiatives. We have international legal working groups, for example, who are trying to figure out what is the best approach to securing rights for animals for their respective country is given their laws and political climate.
We not only want to secure real legal change for animals now but also create a paradigm shift that will outlast all of us. At the same time, we want to make sure that people know that we think welfare is along the path to recognition of rights; welfare work is important and necessary to protect animals today.
How does the NhRP differ from other animal charities? What’s unique?
We are the only charity in the U.S. dedicated solely to the pursuit of animal rights. There are other charities experimenting with it right now. We’re trying to do it in the most rigorous and thoughtful way possible, especially for the long term.
Are there any charities in other countries that focus exclusively on rights-based work?
There’s one charity in Argentina. I think it’s a one-man charity, actually. The acronym for it is AFADA. The person behind AFADA filed suit on behalf of Sandra the orangutan a couple of years ago, and then later did the same for Cecilia, who is a chimpanzee. We didn’t work with them directly, but they modeled their litigation on ours, and they were able to free Cecilia to a sanctuary and now also Sandra who is headed to the Center for Great Apes.