Steven M. Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project think so. In Wise’s own words, chimpanzees are complex, autonomous beings that should have the basic right “to be left alone.”
Seeking a court’s support for their position, the organization petitioned New York courts for writs of habeas corpus on behalf of several chimpanzees they view as being held unlawfully. Habeas corpus petitions have been used to seek freedom from unlawful detention of human beings. The Nonhuman Rights Project believes the statute should also apply to non-human animals as well.
In part, the New York statue states that the petition may be brought by:
“A person illegally imprisoned or otherwise restrained in his liberty within the state, or one acting on his behalf […] A judge authorized to issue writs of habeas corpus having evidence, in a judicial proceeding before him, that any person is so detained shall, on his own initiative, issue a writ of habeas corpus for the relief of that person.”
Is it really surprising that this week three different judges denied habeas corpus petitions requested by Wise acting on behalf of these chimpanzees? The courts seem to have interpreted the word “person” as referring to a “human being” and not any other non-human animal. Wise plans to take the case to appeal.
This recent attempt by Wise and colleagues to have a non-human animal declared a person ended in a similar way to a PeTA’s suit that argued orcas held at SeaWorld are slaves who should be freed under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. In that case, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller dismissed the lawsuit explaining the 13th Amendment pertains to human beings, not animals. Some even found comic relief in PeTA’s approach, asking if the whole thing was nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Wise and other animal rights activists appear obsessed with the goal of seeking rights for non-human animals. Unfortunately, this is not a very effective way to advocate for animal welfare. At the end of the day, and after all the philosophical debate of what basic rights mean and who are legitimate holders, the only question that can be meaningfully answered is the following — How is that we, humans, think we should treat other living beings?
The substantial resources and funds devoted in pursuit of the fixation of animal rights could have had a more real impact if devoted to improve animal welfare directly. In the specific case of chimps, for example, a legal push to outlaw individual, private ownership for non-scientific, non-education purposes would make more sense and be more effective to the animals than publicity-seeking lawsuits.
How we treat animals is a legitimate public debate to be had. But, as correctly pointed out by Richard Cupp in a rather interesting exchange with Steven Wise this week, the proper object of concern should not be animal rights, but human responsibility. Accepting that evolution has put humans in a place to be the stewards of our planet, its environment and all living creatures within it, carries a responsibility that we must accept and face. Understanding this to be the outcome of evolution is not speciesist. In contrast, denying relevant differences between living beings is what leads to the idea that animals should have the right to be “left alone.” If successful, such move may actually free humans of responsibility and let the animals fend for themselves in an environment increasingly shaped by human activity.