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Animal “personhood” rights?

August 8, 2014

This short documentary follows the lawyer Steven Wise’s effort to break down the legal wall that separates animals from humans.

Video Credit By Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker on Publish Date April 23, 2014.



How does a thing become a person? In December 2013, the lawyer Steven Wise showed the world how, with a little legal jujitsu, an animal can transition from a thing without rights to a person with legal protections. This Op-Doc video follows Mr. Wise on his path to filing the first-ever lawsuits in the United States demanding limited “personhood” rights for certain animals, on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York State.

Mr. Wise (who is also the subject of The New York Times Magazine’s cover story this Sunday) has spent more than 30 years developing his strategy for attaining animal personhood rights. After he started his career as a criminal defense lawyer, he was inspired by Peter Singer’s book “Animal Liberation” to dedicate himself to justice for animals. He helped pioneer the study of animal rights law in the 1980s. In 2000, he became the first person to teach the subject at Harvard Law School, as a visiting lecturer. Mr. Wise began developing his animal personhood strategy after struggling with ineffective welfare laws and regulations that fail to keep animals out of abusive environments. Unlike welfare statutes, legal personhood would give some animals irrevocable protections that recognize their critical needs to live in the wild and to not be owned or abused.

The current focus of Mr. Wise’s legal campaign includes chimpanzees, elephants, whales and dolphins — animals whose unusually high level of intelligence has been recognized by scientific research. The body of scientific work on chimpanzee cognition, in particular, is enormous, and scientific testimony is crucial to Mr. Wise’s legal arguments. His team, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), selected as its first plaintiffs four chimps living in New York: Tommy, Kiko, Hercules and Leo. He chose these animals in large part because New York’s common laws are favorable to habeas corpus lawsuits, and because there are great ape sanctuaries that could accommodate them.

This fall, the cases will be likely to go to New York’s intermediate appellate courts. If Mr. Wise wins, he will have successfully broken down the legal wall that separates animals from humans. His plaintiffs, the four chimps, will be deemed legal persons and relocated to outdoor sanctuaries around the United States. In many ways, the lawsuits have already won: They have brought animal personhood to the forefront of the conversation surrounding our society’s relationship with animals.

This Op-Doc is adapted from a feature-length documentary, “Unlocking the Cage,” which we are producing about Mr. Wise. We hope these works will inspire people to think differently about animals and why we should protect them.


D. A. Pennebaker has directed more than 30 feature-length documentaries, including “Dont Look Back” and “Monterey Pop.” In 2012 he received an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Chris Hegedus has directed films for nearly four decades. She won the 2002 D.G.A. award, and, with Mr. Pennebaker, received an Academy Award nomination for “The War Room.”

Op-Docs is a forum for short, opinionated documentaries, produced with creative latitude by independent filmmakers and artists. Learn more about Op-Docs and how to submit to the series.

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what type of “hood” does a living being have to be
before they are treated with kindness and respect
by humanity.
far more animals than humans deserve “personhood”
and so that remains until our species behaves
like it should.

treat all others as you wish to be
or you are no more than an

Karen Lyons Kalmenson

13 Comments leave one →
  1. karenlyonskalmenson permalink
    August 8, 2014 12:11 pm

    what type of “hood” does a living being have to be
    before they are treated with kindness and respect
    by humanity.
    far more animals than humans deserve “personhood”
    and so that remains until our species behaves
    like it should.

    treat all others as you wish to be
    or you are no more than an

    Liked by 2 people

  2. August 8, 2014 12:37 pm

    Reblogged this on Vegan Lynx.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. J. David Scott permalink
    August 8, 2014 1:00 pm

    This is simply a no-brainer. Of course animals have rights. Given my choice, I’d far rather spend time with animals than most “humans”.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. August 17, 2014 9:46 am

    Reblogged this on Exposing the Big Game.


  5. narhvalur permalink
    August 18, 2014 3:32 am

    Reblogged this on Ann Novek–With the Sky as the Ceiling and the Heart Outdoors.


  6. August 18, 2014 3:52 pm

    Great post, interesting reading!


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