Primate Rescue Center

Local Animal Rights Attorney at Center of Great Ape Debate over Captive Chimps

Erika Fleury May 21, 2015

Should chimpanzees — complex creatures with thoughts, feelings and the smarts to learn sign language — have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

Steven Wise, a prominent animal rights attorney from Coral Springs, has bet his career on it.

Our cousin the ape is poised to take an evolutionary new step — this time across the threshold into the courthouse.

Leading the landmark legal effort is Wise, 64, founder, president and chief litigator of the Nonhuman Rights Project.

Wednesday, Wise will make the historic argument that two of his clients — chimps Leo and Hercules, now being used for research at Stony Brook University in Long Island — have fundamental rights that protect them from being held captive.

Judge and jury: New York State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe, the first magistrate to order a university to explain why it is holding a chimp captive.

A courtroom victory could herald the end of chimps' use in biomedical research, animal rights advocates say.

"If we win, it's one baby step forward," said Wise, whose efforts are part of an international movement to establish rights for the great ape, humans' closest relative.

"We think Leo and Hercules have been locked in cages for six years," Wise said. "They suffer the way we would suffer if we were imprisoned in a cage. They can remember the past and they can imagine the future. We're just trying to get them out of there."

Stony Brook spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow declined comment, citing the pending litigation.

"The main thing is, can you get a hearing?" Wise said. "And that was the big breakthrough. The first three judges said, 'Get out of my courtroom, a chimp is not a person.' This judge issued the writ of habeas corpus, which is meant to protect us from being held against our will. And that was a huge step forward."

A legal scholar on animal rights and author of four books, Wise has appeared on the popular TED Talk forum, was profiled in a New York Times Magazine cover story last month and stars in an A.D. Pennebaker documentary recently sold to HBO titled "Unlocking the Cage."

Primatologist Bob Ingersoll, who appeared in the 2011 documentary "Project Nim," predicts Wise's work will unleash a worldwide shift in the way mankind treats animals.

"It's a game changer," Ingersoll said. "This isn't just about the great apes. This is about dolphins and whales and cows and mice in labs. It's not going to happen overnight, but 200 years now we're going to treat the planet differently — or we're not going to be here."

Just days before his epic courtroom battle, Wise was the center of a media blitz, granting interviews to TV stations in Australia and France and hitting the radio waves in Sweden and Great Britain.

"People are interested," Wise said. "And they should be. This will be the first time in the history of the world that a judge will hear this argument in court. We're hoping judges will take a much more sophisticated view and question whether animals deserve rights."

Following the case closely are folks on the other side of the issue, researchers and scientists.

"Historically, chimpanzees have made invaluable contributions to science and medicine, including the development of vaccines for hepatitis A and B," said Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research in Washington. D.C. "Chimpanzees have helped scientists gain important insights into diseases such as hepatitis C, malaria, HIV and cancer."

Should Wise win in court, Leo and Hercules would be released to the Save the Chimps wildlife sanctuary in Fort Pierce, he said, even while the university files a likely appeal.

And if he loses?

Wise and his legal team plan to keep litigating as long as it takes, until they find a judge willing to see chimps as beings deserving fundamental rights.

"We are pushing [the chimp debate] in New York and other states," said Wise, who estimates around 3,000 chimps are being held captive in this country alone. "We are linking up with groups in Australia and Argentina, France, Spain and England and working with lawyers there."

For Wise, the upcoming court battle has been decades in the making. A graduate of Boston University Law School, Wise has practiced animal protection law for 30 years and taught animal rights at several law schools, including Harvard.

He argues that chimps should not be kept as household pets or exploited as entertainment in roadside zoos.

Wise is also trying to win freedom for Kiko and Tommy, two New York chimps being held in what Wise calls "solitary confinement" by private owners.

"No one should be able to imprison a chimpanzee in any environment, however one labels it, that does not allow her to live an autonomous and self-determining chimpanzee life with sufficient space to roam and climb, alongside a sufficiently large enough number of other chimpanzees, both males and females," Wise said.

His legal argument is not based on a rallying cry that chimps are people, but rather that they are "legal persons" as opposed to things.

"They don't have to be human to have rights," Wise said. "A legal wall exists that says they don't have any rights at all."

Wise is trying to punch a hole through that wall.

"We chose chimps because we thought the scientific evidence was very strong that they are autonomous and have self determination," he said.

A paradigm shift in the way humans — and courts — perceive animals would bring profound change to what goes on behind the secret walls of research labs, said Michael Budkie, co-founder of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, an Ohio-based group that fights for the protection of animals nationwide.

"This lawsuit seeks to change the legal status of animals as nothing more than property," Budkie said. "Legally speaking, animals are no different than a table or a chair. And there is something wrong with that."

Elephants, dolphins and whales are also on Wise's list of creatures deserving a new lease on freedom.

"We're looking for chimp rights for chimps and elephant rights for elephants," Wise said. "The rights need to match the animal. We think there should be rights for all species of great apes, elephants and whales and dolphins."

Wise is preparing a lawsuit on behalf of a group of circus elephants, but remained mum on when and where.

"You can't just champion one animal," said Ingersoll, a longtime friend of Wise.

"He is my hero. He is getting something done that I never expected in my lifetime. I never expected a court in the country would allow a case like this to be heard. It's a miracle."

- Sun Sentinel

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