Steven Wise and Natalie Prosin spoke with Allison Smith, ACE’s Research Manager, on August 12, 2015.
The Goals and Impact of The Nonhuman Rights Project
What are the overall goals of The Nonhuman Rights Project?
Throughout history, there has been a legal wall separating “persons” on the one side, and “things” on the other. Until fairly recently, groups such as nonhuman animals, and such humans as slaves, women, homosexuals and children have been on the wrong side of the wall: they have been considered to be things rather than persons. Consequently, they have been treated as slaves to the persons on the other side of the wall. Over time, these groups of humans gained the status of persons. The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) views this as part of a fluid process that will gradually lead to the recognition of the personhood of at least some nonhuman animals. The NhRP is working to gain legal recognition for the personhood of nonhuman animals through litigation.
Steven Wise began preparing the arguments and approach of the NhRP in 1985. At that time he believed it would take 30 years of preparation to create winning legal theories, teach them at law schools, write about them in legal, and other, journals, lecture about them, and create an organization able to engage in the necessary world-wide, long-term, strategic litigation campaign. It took 28 years. NhRP’s initial plan has been to identify those species of nonhuman animals about which a great deal is known about their cognitive abilities and whose cognitive abilities are both extraordinarily complex and similar to humans. The NhRP has therefore begun litigating, or planning to litigate, initially on behalf of great apes, elephants, and cetaceans. The NhRP also spent seven years researching all 53 American jurisdictions as well as 20 other English-Speaking jurisdictions to determine which jurisdictions might be most favorable to its litigation. Since December 2013, the NhRP has brought 4 habeas corpus lawsuits in the state of New York on behalf of four imprisoned chimpanzees and will soon bring two more lawsuits. It will also bring a habeas corpus lawsuit on behalf of certain elephants in a different state in 2015.
They view their main audience as groups who can effect a change in the law—legislators, law professors, judges, lawyers, and people in the media—rather than the animal activism community (though they also engage with that community). As part of this goal, NhRP writes law review articles about their cases, and encourages others to do so as well. They try to place these in good law reviews. They have published two and have three or four in the pipeline which discuss the new issues raised by NhRP’s approach and aim to influence the legal discourse.
Public education as to NhRP’s progress is also important. There is an intercourse between public opinion, legislation and judicial decisions: judges pay attention to what is going on in public discourse. Consequently, NhRP continually works to increase their media presence, via Facebook and through the media. They are regularly featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and on the BBC.
When they have sufficient funds, they plan to employ more attorneys to present further legal cases in other US states. They are also beginning to work with groups in Europe, Latin America and Australasia, and hope to become a global coordinator for similar legal challenges across the world.
Steven Wise emphasized that his TED Talk provides a good overview of The Nonhuman Rights Project.
How quickly do they expect to start winning?
They came very close to winning in their recent Hercules and Leo case. The judge was faced with 13 issues and decided 12 in their favor, and one against. The judge decided against not because of her personal opinion, but because she felt she had to defer to another case which NhRP had lost, which is currently on appeal in the state of New York. The NhRP are unsure when they will start winning cases, but their progress has exceeded expectations.
Moreover, they are reluctant to assess the success of a case in terms of winning or losing because, as in the Hercules and Leo case, a judge may rule against them overall but find many things in their favor: in spite of the overall loss, this constitutes progress. For example, in the Hercules and Leo case, for the first time in history, the standing to sue directly on behalf of a nonhuman animal was upheld. This was a huge breakthrough. The judge also agreed that you don’t have to be human in order to be a person. Thus, even though the case was lost, important progress was made.
As NhRP grows and mounts more legal cases, they expect to win some cases and lose others. Eventually they hope to have effected a paradigm shift in world law.
Importantly, the NhRP is not engaged in animal protection. They are explicitly trying to establish the rights and not necessarily the welfare of nonhuman animals. For example, they deny the right of any human to imprison a chimpanzee under any conditions, including those which give the chimpanzee a high degree of welfare. While NhRP supports animal protection charities, in their view, no group throughout history has been properly protected without being a legal person and having rights.
Where do they see the cases leading to for other animals, aside from relatively intelligent ones, such as chimps and elephants?
NhRP is trying to change the legal paradigm so that judges cannot deny the personhood of a thing merely by appealing to its species. It is very difficult to see where this will lead, but, again, in the absence of legal recognition, legal history tells us, a group will not be adequately treated. They do intend to extend their arguments to as many nonhuman animal species as they can and understand this is a long-term struggle.
NhRP has consulted with founding members of the gay marriage movement for guidance on methods and tactics. This movement has a special insight into how to move forward when the prospects of success are grim.
Is a decision in one state binding in any way on other states?
Judges in one state are not bound by judicial decisions in other states. However, they will look at the legal arguments made in other states and consider how persuasive they are. For example, in a 2014 animal law case in the Oregon Supreme Court, the court cited the NhRP’s chimpanzee cases in New York as a marker of the legal progress of animal rights.
Did they raise enough to fully fund their most important program?
NhRP’s current approach is to look at the resources they have and then use them. At present, they are litigating cases in the state of New York and beginning to litigate cases in a second state. They operate not by hiring local counsel for a specific case in the state in which they are litigating, as it has been their experience that the local counsel lack the grounding in animal rights jurisprudence, legal history, science, and philosophy that is required to be able to devise winning theories and strategies. Instead they are looking to hire experienced lawyers they can teach these matters to and who will remain with them for many years. They believe they need be able to pay high enough salaries to attract experienced and competent people who can learn how to litigate these matters from them and who will remain with them for a long time. The more money they receive, the more attorneys they can hire and the more states they can simultaneously operate in.
Are any changes in their funding situation expected over the next year?
Last September, NhRP brought in a fundraising contractor in order to build a funding base. At this stage it is difficult to predict how their funding situation will change in the short-term. They are trying to build an email list to which they send a regular newsletter. They also hope to gain more supporters as a result of Steven Wise’s TED Talk, which has received over 800,000 views.
What would an additional $100,000 do?
At present, $100,000 would buy one and a half or two new staff attorneys for one year though the number of new attorneys that amount could buy would diminish over time because the attorneys’ wages would rise.
Outcomes and Assessment of Outcomes
How do they go about measuring or assessing outcomes?
Fundamentally, they look to see on which issues they have won or lost. For each particular case, they plan to win on as many dimensions as possible and lose on as few as possible. They try to learn from each case and gain an understanding of why a judge might not have accepted one of their arguments. NhRP’s approach is completely novel, so judges sometimes struggle to understand the relevant arguments.
An example of how they learned from experience is the recent Hercules and Leo case. Even though NhRP felt that the arguments from equality and liberty were very simple, the judge did not understand them. So, next time they will reframe the arguments in a more obvious and simple way.
What would be a sign that they need to re-evaluate the program’s approach?
They try to be as flexible as possible and constantly re-evaluate their arguments and approach in light of how judges react to their arguments. They cast their arguments in terms of values which the judges accept.
As mentioned, they are also open to gaining insights from other organizations who work in roughly comparable areas, such as gay marriage.
How many leadership positions are there?
There are 3-5 people in main leadership positions, and the buck ultimately stops at Steven Wise. However, the NhRP is small enough that it tends to act by consensus.
How long have the top people been involved?
Steven Wise has been preparing the groundwork for the NhRP since 1985. The NhRP was formed in 1996 and expanded in 2007 to the personnel that has been pretty stable since then. Many of the current staff have been employed for 5-6 years.
Do they have an established procedure for training new staff?
Everybody who works for NhRP started as a volunteer. NhRP have many different kinds of staff who require different kinds of training. Natalie Prosin is responsible for the training of all staff apart from new staff attorneys. In addition, they have a group of volunteer attorneys who write research on different issues.
They are now entering a new phase because they recently posted a new job advertisement for their first full-time attorney position. Before that attorney starts work, they will develop protocols for how to train him/her. The protocol used to train new employees depends on the project the person will be involved with. Projects can vary from media work to fundraising to legal research.
Do they have a transparency policy?
NhRP posts details of all of its activities and outcomes, good or bad, on its website. They encourage outside critiques of their work. They do not have any organizational secrets. One caveat is that certain things are confidential out of respect for the interests of their plaintiffs.
Do they collaborate with, or provide information to, other members of the animal activism community?
As mentioned above, everything that NhRP does is posted on its website, so that everybody can see their activities and progress.
Natalie Prosin talks to many animal groups in Washington and Steven Wise has many connections from his prior presidency of The Animal Legal Defense Fund. They are very open to working with any other members of the animal activism community, though they do not know of any other group who currently has a similar approach to NhRP.
Do they have any other information which may be of interest?
The NhRP website has numerous videos and blogs, which provide in-depth information on the NhRP.