|Type of Work||General Animal Rights Legal and Legislative|
|Website||The Nonhuman Rights Project|
|Review Published||December, 2015|
What does the Nonhuman Rights Project do?
The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is working to achieve legal personhood and rights for at least some nonhuman animals. They have begun litigating, or planning to litigate, initially on behalf of great apes, elephants, and some marine mammals like dolphins. Their existing court cases have mostly been on behalf of chimpanzees like the recent case of Hercules and Leo, who are kept at Stony Brook University.
What are their strengths?
Legal personhood and rights could be the most promising avenue for the proper consideration of nonhuman animals in our society. The NhRP is the only organization we know of working directly towards this end, and they seem well-prepared to make progress. They have spent substantial effort learning from previous social movements, such as the advocacy that has helped enslaved humans transition from “things” to “persons.” This sort of legal change might be more permanent than existing animal welfare laws because of its fundamental nature, similar to unalienable legal rights for humans. Additionally, the NhRP has captured public attention with their cases, which seems to have increased concern for nonhuman animals and lent authority to other animal advocates.
What are their weaknesses?
Currently, the NhRP is only working on behalf of 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. Although having proper legal consideration of these animals would be a major achievement in itself, the majority of their expected impact seems to be through these benefits extending to greater numbers of animals, such as those used in animal agriculture. We are very uncertain about whether the NhRP’s work will eventually extend to those animals.
Why didn’t NhRP receive our top recommendation?
We’re excited about the possibility of legal personhood and rights for animals, especially those in extremely large populations such as farm and wild animals. However, we have substantial uncertainty as to whether the NhRP’s work will bring about this end and general skepticism about ACE’s ability to deliberately affect the rate of progress toward such a long-term goal. For example, we think that if society begins to care more about animals and vegan options become more popular, cheaper, and similar to animal-based foods, then animal agriculture could end without the advent of legal personhood and rights. We also think that the best way to increase the likelihood of legal personhood and rights might not be through directly supporting legal work, but from supporting social change on behalf of animals that makes people more likely to support these ends.
The Nonhuman Rights Project has been one of our standout charities since December 2015.
Performance Based on Our 7 Criteria
- Criterion #1: The Charity Has Concrete Room for More Funding and Plans for Growth
- Criterion #2: A Back-of-the-Envelope Calculation Finds the Charity is Cost-Effective
- Criterion #3: The Charity is Working on Things That Seem to Have High Mission Effectiveness
- Criterion #4: The Charity Possesses A Robust and Agile Understanding of Success and Failure
- Criterion #5: The Charity Possesses a Strong Track Record of Success
- Criterion #6: The Charity Has Strong Organizational Leadership and Structure
- Criterion #7: The Charity is Transparent
How Nonhuman Rights Project performs on our criteria
Criterion #1: The Organization Has Concrete Room for More Funding and Plans for Growth
The Nonhuman Rights Project has grown very thoughtfully and conservatively. Last year they funded all their programs, mainly because they tailored their program levels to their available funding. For many years they were not seeking to grow quickly. Now they have begun litigating cases and are ready to hire more lawyers so they can work in additional jurisdictions, since case law from one jurisdiction is not binding outside of it.
Hiring an additional staff attorney would cost around $70,000 per year early in their tenure at the NhRP (rising as time goes on), because they must hire skilled lawyers who could easily take other well-paying positions. The NhRP would provide substantial training to new staff attorneys, since they must understand the NhRP’s unique legal approach very well in order to use it successfully in court. We think they could probably train up to four new attorneys next year. This leads to a use, in the next year, for about $280,000 in additional funding.
The NhRP has also recently hired a fundraiser, so we can expect their own fundraising to increase, filling part of the gap. If half the gap remains, they could use another $140,000 in funding beyond what they raise themselves next year. Since we can’t predict exactly how any organization will respond upon receiving more funds than they have planned for, this estimate is speculative, not definitive. We could imagine a group running out of room for funding more quickly than we expect, or coming up with good ways to use funding beyond what we have suggested. Our estimates are indicators of the point at which we would want to check in with a group to ensure that they have used the funds they’ve received and are still able to absorb additional funding.
Criterion #2: A Back-of-the-Envelope Calculation Finds the Organization is Cost-Effective
We think quantitative cost-effectiveness estimates are often useful as factors in charity evaluations, but we are concerned that assigning specific figures can be misleading and appear more important in our evaluation than we intended. For the NhRP in particular, we believe that our back-of-the-envelope calculation of their cost-effectiveness is too speculative to feature in our review or include as a significant factor in our evaluation of their effectiveness. For instance, in thinking about their impact we considered the likelihood that legal advocacy leads to the end of animal agriculture; the likelihood that if legal advocacy leads to the end of animal agriculture, the NhRP’s work will be the deciding factor in those events; and the likelihood that the NhRP’s work, while not ending animal agriculture, will combine with other forces to end it one year sooner. Our estimates for all of these factors were very speculative. We considered other unknowns as well, and we omitted many possible scenarios for simplicity.
Additionally, we think the majority of the NhRP’s expected impact is in the medium and long term, and we have not published cost-effectiveness estimates of the medium or long term impacts of any other charities, so we worry that including this cost-effectiveness calculation would be unfair to those other organizations.
In the future, we hope to have better ways to quantitatively estimate medium and long term impacts, which could lead to publishing a cost-effectiveness estimate for the NhRP. We think cost-effectiveness calculations would still be most useful as one small component in our overall understanding of charity effectiveness.
Criterion #3: The Organization is Working on Things That Seem to Have High Mission Effectiveness
Antispeciesist Legal Advocacy
The Nonhuman Rights Project uses a unique legal approach to helping animals. Their rights-based approach seeks to provide long-term, stable protection for nonhuman animals under the law. We think the availability of enforceable and flexible legal protections for animals is a key component in creating a society that is just and caring towards those animals, as legal protections are essential in providing a society that is fair to its human members. By establishing animals as legal persons and providing a means for advocates to sue on their behalf, the NhRP’s strategy provides a way of establishing legal protection first for some nonhuman animals, and perhaps later for many more. The NhRP’s court cases, media articles about their work, and public appearances also seem to increase support for the view that nonhuman animals should be treated as feeling individuals, which could benefit the work of other animal advocacy groups and projects even if the NhRP’s legal victories don’t directly affect those areas.
In keeping with this long-term focus, the NhRP’s current projects address only the first steps necessary for providing animals with justice through the legal system. Thus, there is room for considerable uncertainty about the eventual impact of their work. There may come a point at which their strategy no longer leads to legal progress for animals, while some or all nonhuman animals are still denied legal personhood. For instance, if they are able to establish rights for only the most cognitively complex nonhumans—the chimpanzees, elephant, parrots, and similar animals they work with now—their impact will be significantly less than if they can also establish personhood and rights for animals more commonly exploited in our society, such as pigs and chickens.
This concern, that the NhRP’s strategy will lead to a change for a fixed, small proportion of animals used by humans, is significant. If their strategy is fruitful for all or nearly all animals, their work will be extremely valuable even if it takes a long time and substantial other changes are made to animals’ status in society during that period, because the legal protections they seek to establish would help enshrine other changes in the law and ensure their stability.
Another significant concern is that the legal changes pursued by the NhRP may actually not be necessary to produce large changes in the way animals are treated. It’s possible that social change could cause the permanent changes in how animals are treated that we, and the NhRP, want to see. These changes could then be implemented in law either in the way the NhRP is approaching the problem, or in another way. If this is the case, additional legal work now may not make a significant difference in the ultimate outcome for animals.
Criterion #4: The Organization Possesses A Robust and Agile Understanding of Success and Failure
The NhRP adjusts their approach across individual court cases based on which arguments and strategies are successful. Fortunately, in court cases, they are provided with the court’s opinion on which arguments they accepted and which they did not agree with, so they can then, for example, add to their argumentation to counter any objections that were raised. They have also had difficulty in some cases with the court fully understanding their position, so they have learned to improve their explanations.
They also try to improve their approach based on other social movements. For example, they have studied the movement against human slavery, which in many regions successfully raised all humans from the legal status of property to the legal status of persons. In particular, the NhRP has carefully examined the court case of James Somerset that established chattel slavery (treating humans as property) as unpermitted in England and Wales and paved the way for the elimination of human slavery in many more locations. This has both helped them refine their approach for legal change and suggested to them that legal change is one of the most promising strategies for helping populations who are seen as “things” rather than “persons.”
Criterion #5: The Organization Possesses a Strong Track Record of Success
Successfully carrying out planned programs
The Nonhuman Rights Project began litigating cases recently, after years of developing a legal strategy and doing research. However, they have achieved a degree of success with even their first cases that suggests they are capable of bringing future cases and be taken seriously in court, despite the unusual nature of their project. Another aspect of their operations is developing and spreading a legal theory which allows nonhuman animals to be viewed as legal persons, and they have been successfully publishing law review articles and other materials on this topic since the 1990s.
Programs leading to change for animals
Currently, the programs that the NhRP engages in have not led to changes for animals, and in the near future we would expect them to lead to changes only for small numbers of animals. First, of course, they would lead to changes for the animals on whose behalf they bring lawsuits. Later, we would expect the precedent established to change the treatment of animals in the same species or situation as animals on whose behalf they have worked directly.
Ultimately, the range of animals for whom they had secured legal rights could expand so much that they have an impact upon a very large number of animals. For now, however, the NhRP’s track record is limited to their ability to carry out the first steps of their program, and does not yet include having caused significant changes for even a small number of animals. However, given the very short time they have spent litigating, and the expansive and long-term nature of their project, this is not surprising as it would be with some other organizations or programs.
Criterion #6: The Organization Has Strong Organizational Leadership and Structure
The Nonhuman Rights Project has several people in leadership roles. They generally operate by consensus, but ultimately Steven Wise, the President and founder of the organization, makes the final decision if there is persistent disagreement. The Nonhuman Rights Project has operated with approximately this structure, and a very similar team, since it was expanded in 2007.
The Nonhuman Rights project works with a large number of volunteers; in fact, all of the current staff originally served the organization as volunteers. They provide training to volunteers and staff depending on their roles. They’re currently working on preparing protocols to train staff attorneys, since they are now expecting to begin hiring for that role.
Criterion #7: The Organization is Transparent
The Nonhuman Rights Project shares a substantial amount of detail of their activities on their website. They encourage outside criticism and community suggestions. They have been open in their discussions with ACE and provided all information that we requested.
The following materials are supplementary research documents associated with our charity review process and are referenced in the Comprehensive Review.