When Animal “Legal Personhood” Gets Personal

Controversial lawsuits draw media attention.
  • Kathy Hessler, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Animal Law Clinic

In the wake of Citizens United, the fluidity of the legal personhood concept continues to be tested. Recently, legal personhood formed the legal basis for a series of controversial lawsuits that drew two Lewis & Clark professors into the media spotlight.

Visiting Professor Steven M. Wise and Clinical Professor of Law Kathy Hessler were targeted for comment when Wise, through his nonprofit organization the Nonhuman Rights Project, filed a series of lawsuits demanding judges issue a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of four chimpanzees. The suits, which ultimately sought to move the chimpanzees out of neglectful situations and into a sanctuary, asked three New York judges to recognize for the first time that chimps have a right of bodily liberty.

Despite the legal limitations inherent to “legal personhood”—which, for example, do not grant an individual the right to vote, marry, or hold public office—the lawsuits drew opposition. Some critics argued that a legal system already overburdened with crimes against humans should not be concerned with expanding the legal rights of animals. Others were concerned about a “slippery slope” of increasing rights for chimps that would lead to the crippling of medical and scientific research as well as species conservation.

Both the novelty and the outspoken controversy surrounding the suits garnered a flurry of media attention from national and international news outlets such as CNN, the BBC, The New York Times, and NPR. Local OPB radio broadcast program Think Out Loud recorded a segment on the lawsuits featuring Hessler. On the program, Hessler explained that the notion of legal personhood for animals is not one that fits within the historical rubric defining animals as property, but that Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project hoped that the ability to push the boundaries of the “legal personhood” framework, along with the increasing awareness and recognition of the legal status of animals—particularly of species closely related to humans—would be enough to persuade the court to recategorize the legal placement of the chimpanzees in these individual cases.

While the lawsuits were unsuccessful at the trial court level—with each judge rejecting the notion that a chimpanzee was a legal person for the purpose of habeas corpus—Wise was pleased with the words of encouragement and support from the judges. Despite dismissing Wise’s legal theory, the Honorable Joseph M. Sise, Supreme Court Judge in the Fourth District of New York, stated that Wise made a “very strong argument.” Sise expressed his appreciation “as an animal lover” and wished the Nonhuman Rights Project luck with its future ventures.

Ultimately, Wise conceded that the outcomes were expected. He has vowed, however, to appeal each decision to the appropriate New York Appellate division. “The struggle to attain the personhood of such an extraordinarily cognitively complex nonhuman animal as a chimpanzee has barely begun,” he said.