I See My Light Come Shining

The documentary film Unlocking the Cage (reviewed in this blog for 13 February 2017) follows the lawyer Steven Wise as he tries to persuade American judges to free four chimpanzees from varieties of miserable captivity. At the end, we see him thoughtfully watching an elephant forced to provide fun for American families. Elephants would indeed come next in his campaign (called the Nonhuman Rights Project or NhRP). Not that the chimpanzees had been freed; nor were the three elephants who came next, in court cases from 2017 to 2020. Some of this company of prisoners died during the endeavour. Tommy the chimpanzee simply ‘disappeared’. The others languished where they were, or went on to different forms of captivity and exploitation.

Wise in court

Even so, it’s not a story of failure. Steven Wise would be a hard man to defeat, and the NhRP is always making progress, as this post will show. On Thursday last, it came before the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. It’s the first time this court has dealt with the rights of an animal, and also, as Wise says, “the first time in history that the highest court of an English-speaking jurisdiction will hear a case that demands a legal right for a nonhuman being”. The subject of the case is an Asian elephant, 51 years old, presently being kept for public interest and entertainment at the Bronx Zoo. The court’s judgement will be published at some time in the coming weeks.

The elephant in question is called Happy, an insultingly inappropriate name for this animal so patently deprived of her natural pleasures. It expresses, besides, the frivolity of attitude in the humans who imported her, with six other elephant calves, into the United States from Thailand in 1971. The abducted animals were named after Snow White’s seven dwarfs (elephants called after dwarfs, you see: chuckles all round!). The same facetiousness has pursued her ever since. In the monorail car that takes visitors above her enclosure, so a report in National Geographic tells us, “a chirpy guide cracks jokes and rattles off facts.” In media likewise, of course: one report on the case is headed “Happy the elephant hopes to pack her trunk after court case”. What fun animals are!

Intentionally or not, all this drollery is a proportioning device, and it works. As counsel and judges discuss the situation in the Court of Appeals (a video of the proceedings is available on the NhRP web-site), that name continuingly damages the seriousness of the case, sentimentalizing and diminishing the animal, making her seem incongruous as the subject of attention in that grand setting.

That, of course, is exactly the case being made by the respondents to the case (the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Bronx Zoo which it manages): i.e. that neither Happy, nor any other animal, is important enough to feature in a writ of habeas corpus of the sort which the NhRP is bringing to the court on her behalf: “It puts them in the same category as people, which we oppose” says their counsel. The text of the habeas corpus writ does indeed refer to “persons”. It’s a device in common law (that is, law as developed by judges in the courts, rather than fixed in statutes), which requires those who detain such “persons” to justify the detention before a court or else to release them. And this is the legal instrument with which Steven Wise has been trying to liberate those chimpanzees and elephants. In order to make it work, he has had to show that these animals can properly be considered ‘persons’.

Elephant Scratching Face on a Tree

The argument is not, then, about welfare, which is covered in statutory law. The Zoo’s counsel may well be right in insisting that Happy’s treatment satisfies such law, miserable as she obviously is, but it’s beside the point. The key word in the NhRP’s case is ‘autonomy’. Happy is entitled to be called a ‘person’ and so enjoy the protections of habeas corpus because she has all the cognitive and emotional faculties of an autonomous being, fit to make her own choices and direct her own life. She should therefore be freed to practise and enjoy her autonomy, if not in the absolute wild (it’s far too late for that), at least in a sanctuary that closely imitates it.

Of course no animal has yet been freed in such a way, and this fact inhibits judges who, in common law, generally look to former cases (i.e. precedents) for their guidance. But at least they are not confined by statutory laws, and in practice judges have often enough decided according to their own sense of natural justice or of the changing social attitudes and requirements of their times. Specialists in the use of habeas corpus have spoken of its efficacy in past cases to establish human rights, for instance the rights of wives and children, which “were well in front of statutorily mandated protections”. Steven Wise has written a book about one particular instance: the judgement of Lord Mansfield in 1772, freeing the slave James Somerset, even though there was no existing law to say that slavery was illegal, nor any common law precedent for such a decision. Lord Mansfield’s decision was essentially a moral one: slavery was, he said, “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law.” Britain of course had no such positive law to support slavery, so James Somerset was freed.

It had been put to Lord Mansfield that freeing Somerset would have a catastrophic effect: learning that Britain had outlawed slavery, Somerset’s fellow-slaves in the Americas would “flock over in vast numbers, over-run this country, and desolate the plantations”. Lord Mansfield acknowledged that such concern for the larger consequences, good or bad, of a court’s decision, were legitimate (lawyers call this factor in judicial decision-making ‘policy’). But he rejected it in this case, using the Latin dictum ‘fiat justitia ruat coelum’ (roughly, ‘let right be done regardless of consequences’). And now this same argument as to ‘policy’ is being put to the judges in Happy’s case. Counsel for the Zoo warns of “the dramatic impact” that a victory for Happy “would have on our society.” Not just farmers would feel their livelihoods threatened. The Zoo’s case has the backing of the National Association for Biomedical Research, which fears that extending habeas corpus to animals “would impede important medical breakthroughs”. One judge asked counsel for the NhRP whether the aim was to make any human use of an animal illegitimate; another wondered if dogs might in future be habeas corpused from their owners. In fact the Bronx Zoo, which intends to discontinue its elephant ‘exhibits’ in the near future anyway, seems to be fighting the case precisely in order to prevent this dangerous precedent.

It’s a difficult point to defeat in court, and counsel for the NhRP (not Steven Wise this time, but Monica Miller) admitted that it would be “disingenuous” to say that Happy, if freed, would bring an end to the story. Of course she would not. For after all – which Ms Miller did not say – autonomy is nature’s promise to every life born, except perhaps in the case of swarm animals. (I note a placard at one NhRP event that reads “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings”.) Accordingly, counsel for the Zoo complained at an earlier hearing, “this is not really about elephants. It’s about elephants, it’s about giraffes . . .” “It’s about animals,” the judge agreed – perhaps nervously, perhaps with Mansfield-like willingness to let in the uncertain future (for this was Judge Alison Tuitt, of whom more below). And that indeed is the answer to the ‘floodgates’ objection: Fiat justitia, let right be done, and after that let us adjust ourselves to whatever world it turns out to imply.

It doesn’t take long to watch the recent hearing in the New York court, because the whole thing took no more than half an hour. It may even seem somewhat disappointing: shapeless, imprecise. (I missed Steven Wise’s good-humoured forensic authority.) But there have been three earlier hearings in lower courts, with much longer attention spans. And besides, the case in this New York court has the backing of a great volume of argument submitted by its amici curiae (‘friends of the court’, effectively expert witnesses): there are eighteen of these textual ‘briefs’ – involving 146 organisations and individuals, including lawyers, philosophers, zoologists, and theologians – together constituting an education in animal rights. And it’s evident from those earlier decisions, adverse though they’ve been, that the judges do read and ponder these amicus briefs, as well as the arguments put in court. At any rate, the aforementioned Judge Tuitt, for instance, when ruling (“regrettably”, as she said) against the NhRP’s claim in the Bronx County Supreme Court in 2019, said this:

Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property. She is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty.

And she quoted Judge Eugene Fahey’s opinion in the case of the chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko the year before:

The issue whether a nonhuman has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us. Ultimately we will not be able to ignore it.

Writing in the year 2000, Steven Wise recalled having to speak for animal rights before judges who belonged to “an intellectual world that Galileo and Darwin” had “not yet penetrated.” Since then, however,

judges who matured alongside the newer animal rights movement have begun to take their places. They will be better equipped to examine the objective data and hear – not just listen to – the supporting arguments. They will begin to rattle the cage.

That’s just what Justices Tuitt and Fahey were doing to the cage. In time, for certain, they or other judges will actually open it. May it be this time, and this elephant’s cage which they open!

Notes and references:

There is a petition backing the case for Happy’s release to a sanctuary here: https://www.change.org/p/end-happy-the-elephant-s-10-years-of-solitary-confinement

The film Unlocking the Cage (2016) as reviewed in this blog: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/unlocking-the-cage/

The court hearing on 18 May can be viewed in this video, which actually starts at Ihr 04 minutes in, with some introductory comments from Steven Wise: https://www.nonhumanrights.org/blog/Highlight_Page/the-fight-to-freehappy/. This page also has links to various reports in the media, including the piece in National Geographic quoted above. The heading ‘Happy the elephant hopes to pack her trunk’ comes from The Times newspaper, 13 May 2022.

The amicus briefs submitted for the NhRP to the New York court are listed, with links to the texts, here: https://www.nonhumanrights.org/?p=17232?date=1652869015349.  The quotation about habeas corpus comes from brief no.7, which provides an excellent account of the writ and its potential.

Steven Wise’s book about the James Somerset case is Though the Heavens May Fall: the Landmark Trial that Led to the End of Human Slavery (Da Capo Press, 2005: note the word ‘human’ in the title: not all slavery yet.] He also writes about the Somerset case in Rattling the Cage: Towards Legal Rights for Animals (Profile Books, 2000), from which the quotations from Lord Mansfield and counsel in the case are taken (pp. 50 and 103-4), and also the concluding quotations about judges old and new (p.77). The words about slaves flocking to Britain were actually those of counsel for Somerset himself, caricaturing the argument as used by the opposition.

The National Association for Biomedical Research is quoted from the amicus brief which it submitted on behalf of the Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society, itself quoted in a very thorough article in the New Yorker (7 March 2022) about the case. The quotation “it’s about giraffes . . etc.” comes from this same source.

Judge Alison Tuitt’s ruling, in 2019, can be read here: https://www.nonhumanrights.org/content/uploads/HappyFeb182020.pdf  Judge Fahey’s words are quoted from his opinion in the 2018 hearing of the case for the chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko: https://www.nonhumanrights.org/blog/Highlight_Page/the-fight-to-freehappy/ What he says very clearly implies an expected transition from law as an exclusively human amenity, to law that provides justice to all that can benefit from it.

The title is a line from Bob Dylan’s song I Shall Be Released, played during the final credits for the film Unlocking the Cage.

Let My People Go! Animals and the Law

Last week, BBC Radio 4’s legal affairs programme Unreliable Evidence, in its 47th episode, finally got round to the non-human animals. Given the numbers of these animals, vastly greater than the human population, and their vulnerability (a key concept in law) to cruel and fatal interferences by humans, this figure 47 is itself suggestive of the law’s complacent speciesism. However, the presenter, Clive Anderson, conceded at the start that animals “suffer in much the same way as we do”, and he invited four lawyers practising in this area to say whether the law was doing enough to recognize and address this fact.

Two of the lawyers act for organisations that promote field sports, farming, and other varieties of animal-use (the Countryside Alliance and the Country Land and Business Association). Naturally enough, then, they approve of the present law, based as it is on the principle that animals should be protected only from “unnecessary” suffering – that is, suffering which isn’t “proportionate to the purpose” to which humans are lawfully putting them (quotations from the Animal Welfare Act 2006). In such law, animals have no rights of their own; the question is only how absolute the rights of human beings over them shall be. “The idea that animals have a right to liberty”, said Jamie primate-psychology-brain-animal-experimentation-picture-1Foster, the lawyer from Countryside Alliance, “is fundamentally absurd”. Besides (he added, straying for his supporting evidence into Buddhist philosophy), “all life is suffering.”

The other two lawyers argued for a radical change in the law’s thinking: it should start conceding, to non-human animals, rights that are founded on their own interests, rather than simply reliefs from the more unreasonably demanding interests of humans. One of these two, Steven Wise, described the desired change for animals as a move from among “the things of the world” into their proper company among “the persons of the world”, and he is even now trying to achieve this change for chimpanzees, in the courts of the United States. His voice was coming to the programme by telephone from the U.S.A., and it had something of the feel of a voice from the future. In fact when Clive Anderson wound up the discussion by asking him whether we might really be going to see chimpanzees and other animals winning, through the courts, that ‘right to liberty’ which Foster had ridiculed on their behalf, Wise’s voice enthusiastically replied “It’ll come! It’ll come!”

Two of the four chimpanzees which Wise is at present representing in the courts are called Hercules and Leo. They ‘belong’ to the University of Louisiana, but have been on loan (for one does lend “things”) to Stony Brook University for research purposes. The “proportionate” suffering of Hercules and Leo in that institution has consisted, during a period of six years, in repeated operations to insert electrodes into their muscles in pursuit of anatomical knowledge about early human locomotion. More essentially their suffering has involved near-solitary confinement throughout these years, and it’s this imprisonment which Wise has been asking the New York Supreme Court to declare unlawful. (Incidentally, the chimpanzees have recently been moved out of the New York jurisdiction and back to incarceration at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, perhaps with a view to frustrating Wise’s case. His proposed destination for them is the Project Chimps sanctuary in Fannin County, Georgia.)

In statutory law, American or British, such imprisonment for non-humans is of course wholly permissible. They have no presumed right to liberty – rather the reverse, as Mr Foster confirms in the quoted comment. The claim for Hercules and Leo is therefore founded in so-called common law, whose terms of reference are much wider and more liberal. They do not only consist in a body of case-law – decisions and reasonings recorded in previous cases. They consist also in general principles of equity, derived from what the nineteenth-century American judge Lemuel Shaw summarized as reason, natural justice, and enlightened public policy, modified and adapted to the circumstances of all the particular cases which fall within it.” “Natural justice and enlightened public policy”: animals might well hope that their claims to liberty would not seem “absurd” in such contexts. And the crucial instrument of liberation in the common law is the writ of habeas corpus, by which a person being detained by private or public force, or others acting on his behalf, may petition the courts to declare the detention unlawful. (The phrase habeas corpus means ‘produce the body’ – i.e. the writ directs the captor to bring their prisoner into court, at least figuratively, and show reason for the situation.)

It is with a writ of habeas corpus, then, that Steven Wise is even now before the courts on behalf of Hercules and Leo. And his key supporting reference is the decision made at Westminster in 1772 by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield in the case Somerset versus Stewart. Charles Stewart ‘owned’ a slave, James Somerset, whom he brought with him on a trip to England in 1771. Having made a break for freedom, Somerset was recaptured and chained up ready for return to Jamaica. But a writ of habeas corpus was issued on his behalf by a group of London citizens, and Lord Mansfield determined that Somerset’s slavery was “so odious” that the common law could not countenance it. Effectively he made slavery illegal in Britain on the grounds that it was morally objectionable, the very reason for which you or I might even then (we hope) have deplored it, and for which we certainly ought to do so now.

There was no precedent in law for Lord Mansfield’s decision; there was, indeed, a strong presumption against it, urgently represented to him by Stewart’s counsel in court. But as Steven Wise said to the Supreme Court of New York last year, speaking of Lord Mansfield and hoping to instil in the court something of that man’s independence and courage, “one of the reasons he’s such a great judge is that he understood that there’s a first time for everything.”

The writ of habeas corpus is the best hope for the unjustly imprisoned, and therefore pre-eminently for the slave. It must also then be the best hope for the non-human animal, because, so Wise re-iterated during the radio discussion, our relation to other animals at present is exactly a master-slave relation. Jamie Foster objected to this “constant use of the word slavery, on the curiously pre-Darwinian grounds that “it’s offensive to anyone who comes from any population that ever was enslaved to suggest it’s simply another version of the same thing.” He thereby illustrated the advocate’s maxim that you should never put a point to a witness which you don’t already know his or her answer to. Wise’s reply came back from America, “My people were enslaved by Pharaoh a long time ago, and I understand it.” 

It is a part of Steven Wise’s case in the American courts to show, through the testimony of stevewise-tekoexperts in chimpanzee mind and culture, that Hercules, Leo, and the others have what he calls ‘autonomy’, and it is upon this autonomy that he bases their title to legal personhood: “They are self-conscious,” he told the New York court; “they have a theory of mind. They can understand what others are thinking. They understand that they are individuals, that they existed yesterday, that they are going to exist tomorrow, that their lives mean something to them. They plan what their life is going to be like.” This sort of autonomy is not, of course, something that can be claimed for all other species of animal, although it very likely can be said of the elephants, orcas, and African parrots, who are next on Wise’s list of proposed clients. Therefore it’s true what his fellow animal-rights lawyer on the programme, David Thomas, pointed out: the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) which Wise has founded to promote and staff the legal campaign seems likely to help only a few animal species, if perhaps many individuals.

However, Steven Wise argued that although ‘autonomy’ was a sufficient condition for personhood in law of the sort he was seeking to establish, it was not a necessary condition: “We don’t know what other sufficient conditions may exist.” He hoped and expected the common law to proceed case by case, conceding rights to such fundamental interests as could be shown by science and reason to exist in any other species. On the NhRP web-site he again quotes Lord Mansfield: “The common law is a step-by-step process that, in Mansfield’s words, ceaselessly ‘works itself pure’. It rights the most egregious wrongs first. Then it turns to the harder questions.” Besides, once the breach in legal personhood is made, and lets in even one non-human species, or a single non-human animal, our collective assumptions about the human relation to other animals must be transformed. It’s indeed this fact which must explain the angry hostility and near-irrational alarm which the NhRP seems to evoke, in the courts and in such airings as the BBC discussion. We are seeing, in fact, a most interesting reprise of the sort of indignation which Charles Darwin’s science encountered about a century and a half ago. And that, I suppose, is because we’re at last beginning to appreciate what that science implies, morally and socially, and to act upon it.  Unlocking The Cage - Synopsis Image

But isn’t all this court-bothering “a very long-winded way of going about it?” asked the fourth of the lawyers, essentially putting that familiar objection ‘why not start somewhere else?’ (i.e. ‘Why not go away?’) And he added helpfully, “there are other ways of making things better for animals.” Good; then let’s get on with those other ways too, and meanwhile celebrate Steven Wise and his fellow-workers at the Nonhuman Rights Project for their heroic attempt upon the antiquated and ignorant human-freemasonry of the law. Certainly there’s a very long story ahead, but as Wise says in the documentary film Unlocking the Cage“It’s time to begin.”


The episode of Unreliable Evidence can be heard again at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07qbcbq.

The quotation from Judge Shaw is from Steven Wise, Rattling the Cage, Profile Books 2000 (p.90), published in the U.S.A. by Perseus Books (1999). The Nonhuman Rights Project web-site is at http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/ , where you can find the transcript of the case recently heard in the New York Supreme Court, and other details of past and pending cases.

The film Unlocking the Cage was released earlier this year. A trailer and other details for it can be viewed at http://www.unlockingthecagethefilm.com/ .The still of Steve Wise with Teko, and the poster for the film, are by courtesy of Pennebaker Hegedus Films.

The photograph of caged mother and child is by Brian Gunn, copyright IAAPFA.