Today is the first day of Harvard Law School’s new animal-rights law class, the first time the 183-year-old school has offered a course in this emerging legal specialization.
The instructor is Steven M. Wise, 49, a Boston lawyer whose law practice in the past two decades has focused almost entirely on animal-related legislation. He also heads the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights in Boston. Culture page editor Julia Duin interviewed him about his new book, “Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals.”
Q: You have been called the “doggie lawyer” by some because of your legal practice that protects dogs who have bitten people. How successful have your efforts been?
A: Over the last 15 years, I have represented probably 150 owners of dogs who have been ordered executed or banished from their towns. People may have complained they bit someone or they bark excessively.
Most people who have companion animals consider them family members. They come to me and say one of my family members has been ordered executed. We’ve managed to save the lives of every single one except for two people who didn’t stay with us.
We try to convince judges to say it’s a good and safe things for dogs to live with their families. We bring in an animal behaviorist and try to help the judge understand what happened from a dog’s point of view.
Q: Your opening salvo in the book is: “Chimpanzees are persons” and killing them is genocide. How are you defining personhood?
A: “Person” is a technical legal term. They should be legal persons, which is what common law intends persons to be. Under the law, personhood is the gold standard. When you become a legal person, you have legal rights. When slaves were not persons, they could be treated illegally.
Q: Thus, being “persons,” chimps and bonobos (chimplike apes) should not be trapped in Africa and shipped overseas, much less have research done on them. As you know, these animals are used in AIDS research. What would you suggest as a substitute?
A: To my knowledge, we have not learned anything through the use of chimps in AIDS research. If we enslaved human beings in AIDS research, we’d learn a lot of things, but it still should not be done.
For instance, the chimpanzee cell room at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta has thick concrete walls, lit only by incandescent bulbs hanging from ceilings. At times, the temperature sinks below 50 degrees. These chimpanzees never know whether it’s day or night. They slowly rot away in these humid and sunless gray concrete boxes. They are intentionally infected with HIV viruses.
Thousands of them are jailed around the world in biomedical research institutions like Yerkes or are imprisoned in decrepit roadside zoos or chained alone or lonely in private dwellings. It’s awful stuff and it’s what happens when an incredibly complex being is viewed as a chair, to be used any way we wish.
Q: I understand you are a vegetarian and you don’t wear leather. Where do you draw the line at protecting animals? Would you say all animals should not be killed?
A: I personally am a vegetarian, but you don’t need to be a vegetarian to accept the idea that chimpanzees and bonobos should be entitled to fundamental legal rights. All nonhuman animals are things in the eyes of the law. Like chairs, they have no legal rights whatsoever. The basic legal right to stop others from killing or torturing or enslaving you is as important to the great apes and others as it is to you.
I am morally convinced animals are created with the type of minds that deserve fundamental legal rights. Drawing a line at human beings is drawing the line at an arbitrary place. Let’s draw it where science points.
To have a fundamental liberty right to bodily integrity, you need a realistic autonomy. You need to be conscious enough, to have desires, to want things, to have a sense of intentionality, to be conscious, to be experiencing and to have a sense of self to know the life you’re living is yours. Trying to puzzle out who has consciousness and who does not is very hard.
Q: How else do you close the gap between humans and animals?
A: We are similar to the great apes, gorillas, orangutans, bonobos and chimps, all of whom don’t have tails. We separated from them 6 [million] to 12 million years ago and we share 99.5 percent of our working DNA with them.
Having a common language helps a lot. But it’s not everything. I have 2-year-old twins. One speaks and one does not, but I don’t think one is conscious and one is not. You argue by analogy: Chimpanzees’ genes are like ours, their biology is like ours.
In my second book, I’ll be discussing African gray parrots, cats, dogs, elephants, orangutans, gorillas and dolphins. Eventually, every animal will fall into one of three groups: We know about their minds and they should have rights; we know about their minds and they should not have rights. Or we don’t know enough about them.
Q: With your emphasis on the personhood of formerly despised groups such as women, children, foreigners, slaves, and now animals, wouldn’t you be a natural ally of those in the pro-life movement who are fighting for the personhood of the unborn?
A: The unborn already have the kinds of rights I’m talking about. The fetus has rights probably even against her mother under common law, which derives from English-speaking countries.
I often do radio shows with fundamentalist Christian radio hosts and they ask me why I am demanding more rights for chimpanzees than for a human fetus. But I answer them that I am demanding the same kind of rights. Under state common law, I am demanding the same kinds of rights as for the fetus. But the 14th Amendment, which is constitutional law, trumps common law. It says the fetus is not a person in regards to the privacy rights of the mother.
The pro-life movement is part of the agenda of the religious right and many on the religious right believe humans are made in the image of God and animals are placed on the Earth for their use. Anyone who believes that will not be receptive to the idea that a nonhuman animal would be entitled to legal rights.
Being made in the image of God is a matter of faith. People used to say women were not made in the image of God. You have to base your judicial system not on a particular faith, but on secular values we all share, or as many as possible of us share and on facts that can be proved or disproven.
Western law is not overtly based on religious values any more. Nor is it based on any absolutes, unless people believe in natural law; rights that come from nature.
Most people would say there is no absolutes. I can’t say there is no absolute right or wrong, but there are certain overarching principles that certain of us in the West have accepted as right, no matter what our religious persuasion.
Q: Don’t you think that having (pro-euthanasia Princeton professor) Peter Singer’s endorsement on your book invalidates your claim that nonhumans are entitled to legal rights?
A: Most people don’t understand what Peter Singer is saying. He is a utilitarian philosopher; what is morally right and wrong is what’s good for the greatest number for people.
He doesn’t believe in rights per se for humans or animals, but he does believe that we have an obligation to consider the interests of any sentient being who feels pains and pleasures, who has interests. Their species is irrelevant. The pain of a bonobo needs to be weighed.
Q: How have black people received your comparison of animals’ present-day situation with American slavery?
A: I get more heat than light on this issue. Black people misunderstand what I am doing. White racists have a history of comparing blacks to apes and monkeys, but that’s not what I am not doing.
I am comparing apes and monkeys to all human beings. [Black novelist] Alice Walker says it’s a valid comparison, especially if we are the descendants of slave owners or slaves or both. Especially if we are complicit in animal slavery and destruction and if at this stage, we are master.
A: What gives you hope in your work?
A: I have been an animal-rights lawyer for 20 years. The world of animal rights law is quite different in 2000 than it was in 1980. Back then, it was considered fringe. Today, there are books pouring out about all kinds of aspects of it.
The number of lawyers going into it or practicing it has jumped. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of lawyers who practice some of this law. There were no law schools back then, now there are about 15, including some of the most prestigious ones: Harvard, Yale and Northwestern. The number of people going into law school going to be animal-rights lawyers has increased.
These people feel this is a tremendous moral wrong and they feel the way to right it is to be a lawyer.
There’s now a case book out on animal law “Animal Law” by Carolina Academic Press and I’ll be using it at Harvard. The first journal, “Animal Law,” has been published by the Northwestern Law School at Lewis and Clark College in Portland [Ore.] I’ve appeared on radio or TV in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, England and New Zealand. Animal-rights law is beginning to blossom all around the world.