Activist says some animals deserve legal rights

June 11, 2002

Staff and wire report Staff writer Anne Geggis contributed to this report.  The Daytona Beach News-Journal  To submit a Letter to the Editor:

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Steven Wise leans to the lectern. "I don't see a difference between a chimpanzee," he says, "and my 4 1/2-year-old son."

At Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., last month, about 40 people came to hear Wise make his controversial case for extending legal rights to some animals, the argument he lays out in his new book, "Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights" (Perseus Publishing).

Wearing a dark suit and a loosened tie, Wise looks Establishment. He is not a tree hugger, he is a lawyer. He's a professional at drawing hard lines. He is also the latest luminary of the animal rights movement. Some think the case he's taking nationwide may become one of the groundbreaking civil rights battles of the next generation.

Wise has buttressed his case with science's latest discoveries about animal cognition and behavior, most of it universally accepted, some controversial. If some species of "nonhuman animals" can be shown to be smarter, more aware, more humanlike than previously recognized, they arguably deserve legal rights, he says.

"Certain species are capable of complex emotions, can communicate using language, and have a sense of self," says Wise, "all characteristics that once defined humanity."

Some talking points: Chimps have complex social interactions. They use tools. Research by Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham, among others, has shown that, even in the wild, they demonstrate an idea of the future and remember the past. They can count. And they can communicate in sign language at the level of a 3- or 4-year-old child.

"Chimps have 98.7 percent of DNA in common with humans," says Wise. "Both my son Christopher and your average adult chimpanzee obviously meet any minimum rational standard for entitlement to basic legal rights."

Consider Lucy, a 6-year-old chimpanzee legally kept as a pet and test subject. Smart and personable, Lucy learned American Sign Language. She greeted her human teacher every morning with a big hug and two cups of tea she made herself at the stove.

But acting "almost human" didn't protect Lucy as legal rights might have, says Wise. As often happens when aging chimps outlive their usefulness as study subjects or become hard to handle as pets, her owners sent Lucy to a chimp rehab center in Africa. Poachers shot and skinned her, and cut off her feet and hands as trophies.

Wise, a longtime animal rights lawyer from Needham, Mass., makes similar cases for eight other species who meet the standards of consciousness, some sense of self-awareness and ability to act intentionally: gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, African gray parrots, African elephants, dogs and honeybees.

He goes over more highlights: Gorilla and human DNA are 97.7 percent identical (most mammals' DNA is more than 90 percent comparable to humans). Gorillas use tools, solve problems, imitate, pretend, even use deception to get their way -- all characteristics of the human domain.

What Wise is calling for is basic "rights of bodily integrity and bodily liberty." This means the covered species would no longer be viewed by the law as "things," says Wise, who equates legal attitudes toward animals today with human enslavement in the antebellum South.

Legal rights would deliver animals from sanctioned abuse, such as when animals are held captive and used -- and sometimes abused -- for entertainment purposes at zoos and circuses. Medical labs could no longer test on any species granted rights.

Daytona Beach animal activist Nikki Linn, who has led a boycott against Gillette for its animal testing policies, agrees that certain kinds of animal testing and use of animals in entertainment ought to be banned. But she's not sure about an outright ban against medical experimentation on animals for certain purposes.

"If we're trying to find a cure for cancer or AIDS, we're going to have to expect some medical testing," says Linn, the executive director of Animal Rescue, Need and Intervention, which runs a no-kill shelter for abandoned animals. "I would hope that we treat those animals (in medical tests) humanely."

Linn says she's not sure how one can decide that one species should be protected and not another: "I don't know how you could narrow it down."

Wise came to his conclusions after 25 years of courtroom experience, defending nearly 150 "dangerous dogs" and trying to stop state-sponsored deer hunts and the U.S. Navy from using dolphins for suicide duty.

Wise began representing animals in court in the late 1970s after a chance reading of Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation," the bible of the modern animal rights movement. In the 1980s, he redirected his Boston law practice from personal injury to animal rights, and since has been joined by his law partner and wife, Debra Slater-Wise. A former 10-year president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Wise has taught animal rights law at Harvard Law School, Vermont Law School and John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

"The early work I did in the 1980s," says Wise, "when I'd go into a courtroom and make an argument on behalf of a dog, people would just start laughing." He observed that neither ethics nor compassion influenced judges in animal cases, thus the need for legal rights. Rather than argue for blanket coverage, he began to search for the species that have "practical autonomy." This would answer detractors "worried that any nonhuman animal could get legal rights," he says.

Support for legal standing for animals appears strong among the public. A survey last year conducted by the Zogby International polling company for the Chimpanzee Collaboratory, a group working to stop abuse of great apes, asked 1,217 adults: "How do you think chimpanzees should be treated under the United States legal system?" Fifty-one percent said "similar to children with a guardian to look out for their interests" and 9 percent said "same as adults with all the same legal rights."

The legal profession is paying attention. When Wise started teaching animal rights law at Vermont in 1990, it was the first course of its kind, he says. Today, there are more than 25.

Wise's viewpoint still faces stiff opposition. His most vocal detractor in legal circles is Richard Posner, a U.S. appellate judge and a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. Calling instead for more vigorous enforcement of existing laws, Posner says: "It just is not feasible to equate animals to humans. There are too many differences."

Tibor Machan, a philosopher and professor of business ethics at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., who has written about the issue, argues that the criterion for rights is morality. "Such rights would only arise if animals developed into moral agents, which they haven't," he says. "Notice no one is expecting animals to be kind, compassionate, considerate of their own victims, stop being carnivorous if they are, and so forth."

The standard reproach from medical researchers: Virtually every major medical advance of the past century has come from animal testing. Says Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, in Washington, D.C.: "It is pretty easy to sit around a table and intellectualize about his stuff and talk about what you'd be willing to give up -- until you or somebody you care about is hit with some terrible disease."