Matthew Dominguez is the director of public affairs and government relations at the Nonhuman Rights Project. He spoke with ACE Researcher Toni Adleberg on July 26, 2017. This is a summary of their conversation.
What led you to the Nonhuman Rights Project?
Dominguez selected Lewis & Clark Law School because of his interest in environmental law, but taking Steven Wise’s class on Animal Rights and Jurisprudence made him aware of animal rights. When Dominguez attended Wise’s class, the organization that would become the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) was just getting started, so the class was mainly a discussion of the project’s work.
After finishing law school, Dominguez worked for the Humane Society of the United States’ Farm Animal Protection Campaign (HSUS FAPC) for five years. He then joined NhRP about ten months ago, having admired their work for a long time. Because Dominguez had become critical of the relatively limited successes of campaigns for welfare reform and was more in favor of a rights-based approach, he was not completely satisfied working for HSUS. Though most activists there also wanted to have rights for animals, Dominguez felt that the term “rights” was considered problematic for unproven and unscientific reasons. He thinks that the reluctance to use the term “rights” is unwarranted; in his experience working at NhRP and HSUS, the general public has no problem with the term. For instance, when the circus bill was passed in New York City, four members of the city council identified as “animal rights activists” and, according to a 2015 Gallup poll, support for animal rights is on the rise.
What were some of NhRP’s biggest accomplishments last year?
NhRP is currently the only animal rights organization in the United States actually fighting to obtain legal rights for nonhuman animals, though they would welcome other groups working on the issue as well! Some organizations claim to fight for “animal rights” but their projects are actually largely aimed at improving animal welfare; they take no concrete steps to obtain legally recognized and enforceable rights for animals.
In the past year, NhRP has expanded their mission and they are now also active outside the courtroom. They are building an infrastructure in order to develop a grassroots movement for their rights-based approach which is similar to those of animal protection organizations. NhRP is also preparing their public policy activities and will soon introduce rights-based legislation at both city and state levels. Currently (before they introduce any new initiatives), they are still doing research, thoroughly vetting the issue, drafting legislation carefully, and building a coalition. For much of the past year, they focused on these activities behind the scenes so that when they finally introduce their first piece of legislation, it has a high probability of being passed.
Concerning their rights-based litigation, NhRP overcame numerous procedural obstacles to appear before a panel of judges in March 2017 and again present their arguments on behalf of their clients Tommy and Kiko. NhRP’s hearings alone are an important step in the right direction because they show that judges are willing to take seriously both the science and the legal arguments behind true animal rights cases, even if they ultimately deny rights to NhRP’s clients. However, NhRP will not claim “victory” until a nonhuman animal is granted legal rights. By the end of the year, NhRP will have filed another lawsuit on behalf of animals in a state other than New York. In its previous review of the organization, ACE wondered whether a litigation approach could be expanded to other species besides chimpanzees. NhRP will file a lawsuit on behalf of an elephant in the coming months.
How does NhRP measure and evaluate progress?
NhRP is a small and lean organization. Unlike some other groups, they do not spend a lot of money buying email lists, fundraising, running TV ads, and so on. Rather, they want to organically bring in grassroots activists, donors, and supporters through campaign-based advocacy. They also developed a completely new advocacy-oriented website and some new tools (such as a database system to track who is involved, how much it costs to win/retain a supporter, where donations are going, etc.).
Measuring success is not straightforward for NhRP, since lawsuits typically take several years to yield any results, and because they have only filed three lawsuits so far. Dominguez suggests that NhRP has a higher standard of success than some animal welfare charities, since they do not consider the number of leaflets distributed (for example) to be an indicator of success.
The public policy department of NhRP has not introduced any legislation yet, but will begin by the end of the year. Eventually, they will be able to track how many bills have been introduced and how far they have progressed in the legislative process. This data can be obtained annually and compared with the results from the year before. When the first results are in, NhRP will be able to explain to donors what they are doing, how they are doing it, and how they evaluate their work. Currently, NhRP is in the process of building that tracking device.
Can you tell us about NhRP’s decision to start pursuing legislation?
As a lawyer, Steven Wise determined it made the most sense to begin work to obtain animal rights via the courts, using each U.S. state’s common law habeas corpus statutes. There is significant legal precedent for judges having recognized the personhood and rights of previously disenfranchised groups of human beings under the common law. NhRP continues to focus on refining their legal arguments based on the rulings they’ve received, obtaining diverse support, finding the right clients, and finding the right courts in which to file the cases.
However, the current social climate is also favorable to animal rights legislation. This progress has paralleled what happened in welfare legislation recently: ten years ago, bills protecting pigs were not considered a priority, while today legislatures are often excited to pass these kind of laws. In the case of NhRP, a more favorable climate has been achieved through their education and media outreach efforts—especially Pennebaker Hegedus Films/HBO’s documentary about NhRP, Unlocking the Cage.
The decision to pursue legislation was also influenced by judges’ skepticism as to whether animal rights are really a judicial issue rather than a legislative issue. NhRP argues that the judicial branch has not only the authority to create a precedent; it has an obligation to expand the law to include animals. It is surprising for judges to apparently not understand their own role in the common law. On the other hand, these judges are right that introducing legislation that recognizes the fundamental rights of animals is possible. The NhRP team has no preference for how animal rights are achieved, as long as these rights are meaningful and legally enforceable. Thus, they will use whichever avenues appear most promising. In the past, that was the judicial approach—but with increasing public acceptance, expanding into legislation is a reasonable step.
The timing of the decision to pursue legislation was partly the result of Dominguez’s decision to join NhRP. NhRP was looking for someone familiar with the organization. Having taken Steve Wise’s class, Dominguez was the ideal candidate. He also has experience with grassroots campaigns, which is needed to push legislation forward.
What are some of NhRP’s strengths and weaknesses?
NhRP’s biggest strength is that they are the only organization taking a rights-based approach. A lot of other organizations are committed to animal rights as well, but they do not necessarily take any concrete, overt steps to get rights legally recognized. Still, NhRP supports most animal advocacy groups out of an understanding that all organizations play different roles in the movement. In some instances, welfare reforms can lead in the direction of rights, and they certainly raise awareness of animal suffering and the obstacles many advocates encounter as they attempt to ameliorate it.
Another big strength of NhRP is their honesty and integrity. They do not take credit for what they did not work on, and they always make it clear to their supporters that they are working on long-term goals that take time. Instead of targeting the symptoms of animal suffering, NhRP is striking at the roots of it. The organization also focuses exclusively on achieving rights for animals, without being distracted by a large number of different projects. Every decision the project makes has to be a step forward towards a world in which nonhuman animals have rights. If an activity does not meet this criterion, NhRP does not engage in it. NhRP’s work isn’t driven by what type of animal advocacy is in flavor or what is “cool.”
Being the only organization taking a rights-based approach is also a weakness. Many organizations even avoid using the term “animal rights” for fear of scaring supporters away. NhRP hopes to show that achieving legal rights for animals is possible so that other groups will join in their mission to win fundamental rights for nonhuman animals. Some years ago, most organizations were afraid of losing donors if they focused on farmed animal issues. Because groups like Mercy For Animals and The Humane League showed that it was possible, farmed animal advocacy is now very popular with organizations and even legislatures.
What are some of NhRP’s goals?
NhRP wants their public policy department to be ready by the end of this year or the beginning of next year. Precisely when they will introduce the first legislation depends on the political climate. The presidency of Donald Trump has led to many city councils and state legislatures taking on progressive policies to counterbalance the federal government‘s erosion of human rights. This could present a good opportunity to introduce nonhuman animal rights to the more active local and state governments. On the other hand, it could also be an obstacle—cities and states are busy protecting rights that were supposed to have already been gained, such as immigrants’ rights or access to birth control.
NhRP will choose the best cities and states in which to begin their legislative initiatives based on demographics, local support, and in-depth research into the most promising places. The grassroots campaign has already grown by at least 50% in the last six months and will continue to do so. For the remainder of 2017, NhRP’s public policy department will focus on building a well-trained grassroots “army,” implementing a new advocacy-focused software platform, and developing legislation that will be introduced in 2018.
Regarding their litigation activities, NhRP wants to introduce more lawsuits on behalf of different species, including elephants. They will also start filing cases in another state.
NhRP also plans to develop an education department. Many animal advocates are not able to give a good explanation of animal rights, so they need training to better understand what these would entail legally. Education will thus be directed at advocates and organizations.
Can you tell us about NhRP’s decision making and culture?
During the last couple of years, NhRP has had discussions with (and received guiding documents from) Evan Wolfson of the Freedom to Marry campaign. This has been very helpful, owing to the parallels between achieving rights for nonhuman animals and achieving marriage equality.
NhRP’s board and directors meet once or twice per year to discuss their current activities and to talk about how these contribute to the overall aim of achieving as many rights as possible for as many animals as possible. To that end, they set short-term goals for one or five years.
NhRP is working on their own guiding document, which is constantly evolving in accordance with the political climate. The timeline seems to get shorter and shorter: just two years ago they would have estimated that it would take another decade and a half before a court recognizes that at least one nonhuman animal has the right to bodily integrity and bodily liberty. At present, however, they are optimistic that this victory can be achieved within the next five years. The goals for the legislation department are similarly short-term: NhRP wants to bring one major city in the United States to pass rights-based legislation for animals within the next two or three years.
All strategic decisions at the NhRP are made by consensus, after open and evidence-based debates. This is evidence of NhRP’s understanding that a having a healthy culture and satisfied employees is absolutely essential to having an effective organization.
NhRP does not conduct work climate surveys, because these could not be made anonymous (given the small number of employees). However, they have a very open policy that allows them to discuss any possible tensions before problems emerge. This is exemplified by regular meetings between the directors, which Wise also attends—at these meetings everyone displays a willingness to listen and to find ways to implement others’ ideas.
Within reason, staff can allocate as much time for professional development as they want. Steven Wise and Kevin Schneider not only encourage but almost mandate this, since many employees would otherwise be reluctant to take time off from their typical work. Dominguez attends conferences regularly and has never been told that he could not go to a conference or event on technology, networking, or any other topic. Part of Campaign Director Lisa Rainwater‘s job is to read books about movement building/grassroots organizations that she considers interesting.
Can you tell us about diversity and inclusion at NhRP?
NhRP does not target any specific demographic with ads or social media activities. Dominguez believes it’s unfortunate that many organizations still do that. Although understandable from an “effectiveness” point-of-view, the world will not become more compassionate by focusing on a select few and ignoring everyone else.
When screening their film or recruiting volunteers, NhRP makes an effort to be present in all types of communities—including underserved ones. Discriminating or tailoring to a specific demographic would not only be problematic in itself, but would also be harmful to animals. In a recent court, for example, four out of five judges were women and two were Black. Every demographic group needs to be involved in the discussion of animal rights.
NhRP also has a better ratio of women to men than most organizations; about half of their employees are women. While the movement consists primarily of women, few of them are in leadership positions. This is different at NhRP, where the board consists of two women and one man.
What are NhRP’s funding needs?
While many organizations might claim they could use any amount of funding, NhRP is not looking to expand indefinitely. They added three new positions last year and plan to grow further. One of their primary staffing goals is to hire a director of education. The next priority is to hire another attorney (in order to be able to file more lawsuits at a time). NhRP wants to file more than one case per year because they believe that is the only way to make breaks in the legal wall separating human and nonhuman animals.
Currently, the organization has a budget of about $700,000–$800,000. They estimate that they could almost double their budget to $1.5 million and still use the money effectively, spending it on next year’s campaigns and legislative initiatives.
NhRP did not set a formal fundraising goal last year. Their aim was to grow by several thousand or up to $100,000 and they achieved that. At the end of the year, they hired a development director.
Fundraising has never been particularly important for NhRP; they’ve never had difficulties raising the relatively small amount of money needed to run a small organization. However, the decision to pursue legislative initiatives and campaigns made it necessary to bring in a development director and set more formal fundraising goals. Fundraising will never be an end in itself for NhRP, however; their goal is simply to bring in enough money so that they can do their work and can build on it and diversify it as needed.
Can you tell us about NhRP’s cooperation with international groups and individuals?
NhRP wants universally recognized animal rights; they do not want to achieve rights for animals in only in one city, state or country. For that reason, they closely cooperate with groups outside the United States. They have not only inspired but also begun to actively support and work with individuals and organizations in places like India, Israel, South Korea, the E.U., the U.K., and South America. The habeas corpus lawsuit in Argentina (which led to the first nonhuman primate being recognized as a person and transferred to a sanctuary) was modeled on the NhRP’s litigation. NhRP hopes that their international efforts—which follow the same careful, research-based approach they employ in the U.S.—will be seen as just as valuable as the rest of their work.