20 year old Cecilia is famous. So much so, she will surely go down in history. Marcelino, her ‘boy next door’ at Sorocaba Great Apes Sanctuary in Brazil, is turning on all his charm for his sweet neighbour. He thinks she’s pretty special but he, like Cecilia herself, has no idea just how special.
Last November (2016) chimp Cecilia became the first animal ever to have been adjudged a nonhuman person in a court of law.
The judgement by the court in Mendoza Argentina granting Cecilia habeas corpus meant release, finally, from the cramped zoo she’d been confined in her entire life. Up until that memorable day it was all she had ever known, a miserable life made even more wretched by the deaths of her lifelong friends and companions, Charly and Xuxa. Can you imagine it. Cecilia was left heartbroken and alone.
It’s little wonder then, even after four months at Sorocaba she is still depressed. It takes more than a few short months of freedom and loving care to obliterate the emotional scars of 20 years imprisonment.
Cecilia, though special in terms of legal history, is just one of the many traumatised chimps, trafficked and mistreated in circuses and zoos before finding a safe haven at Sorocaba. “It is very important to talk to them so they don’t feel lonely,” says Merivan Miranda, one of the 30 carers. “So that they know there is someone there who understands them.”
When she first arrived, Cecilia “used to spend all her time lying down and did not interact with anyone,” says sanctuary vet Camila Gentille. Before handsome Marcelino moved in as her neighbour, the sanctuary staff had already tried a bit of matchmaking with Billy, but Billy was “too impulsive” for sad Cecilia.
But she is slowly getting better. And now, when Marcelino calls to her, she is starting to show him some interest, and even joining in the conversation.
Pedro Ynterian, director of the sanctuary, is certain that with time Cecilia will overcome her depression.“That is what she is seeking to do, so that she can partner with someone, and stop living alone.
“And she will manage to do it.”
Cecilia – now a person, no longer property.
Tommy, Kiko, Hercules & Leo
You may already know these guys as the chimp clients of the altogether awesome lawyer Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project. Unlike Cecilia though, their right to be designated nonhuman persons under the law has been denied by a succession of presiding judges in New York courts.
Woeful as this is for the 4 chimps – and all the others for whom the precedent would be set – Steven though disappointed is undaunted. He remains utterly convinced that advocacy for legal personhood and not advocacy for welfare improvements is the way forward for the animals.
Here is the upbeat opening of his keynote speech at the recent Animal Rights National Conference 2017:-
“It’s the beginning of the end of the age of animal welfare and animal protection and the end of the beginning of the age of civil rights, true legal rights, for nonhuman animals.
“It is the beginning of the end of activists having to beg and plead and cajole other human beings in an effort to get them to do the right thing for nonhuman animals, to get them to try to respect the fundamental interests of nonhuman animals, whose interests are presently invisible in courtrooms, invisible to civil law. And it’s the end of the beginning of the struggle for personhood and the civil rights of nonhuman animals for whom we demand those fundamental legal rights to which justice and equity and scientific fact entitle them.”
Steven continues (my paraphrasing):
There have been laws to protect animals’ welfare in America since the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties which stated, “(n)o man shall exercise any Tirranny or crueltie toward any bruite Creatures which are usuallie kept for man’s use.” But to what extent, if at all, things have improved for animals “usuallie kept for man’s use” in the last 376 years is open to dispute. In spite of animal welfare laws working their way on to statute books in most countries and states, they remain, in Steven’s words, “pathetically ineffective”)
And there are other problems with pushing for improvements in animal welfare. One is that those who make money from them, the meat companies, the farms, the labs, the circuses, the zoos, the puppy mills can always, and often do, choose to ignore our advocacy on the animals’ behalf.
Another is that even if the owners of the animal ‘property’, or their political representatives do yield to public concerns, what has been conceded can as easily be revoked. Take the hard won successes for animals former President Obama signed into federal law. Along comes Trump – no friend of animals he, nor indeed of anything else much except money – and with one stroke of the pen, he can strike them out. Indeed, some are already consigned to the presidential trashcan, and more look like heading that way.
High welfare or low, protected or not, the animals still have “the problem of being a thing versus being a person.”
“For years I have talked about a great legal wall that exists, and has existed, for 2000 years between things and persons. On the ‘thing’ side of the wall, today, in 2017, are all the nonhuman animals of the world. You have to understand what a legal thing is.
“A legal thing is an entity that lacks the capacity for any kind of a legal right. It lacks inherent value. It only has instrumental value for legal persons.
“It is a slave to the master. A legal person is a master to the slave. All of us here are legal persons. We are the owners of things, whether that thing is an elephant or this podium.”
But you don’t have to be a human being to be a legal ‘person’. A corporation can be a person. In india a mosque, a Hindu idol, the Sikh holy books are all legal persons. In New Zealand a river and a national park are both persons under that country’s law.
Let’s not forget Cecilia. And in July this year the Supreme Court in Colombia declared a bear a person and issued a writ of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus gives the right to bodily liberty and can only be granted to a legal person.
Today the NhRP is working with lawyers in 13 countries on 4 continents “to help them win personhood for as many nonhuman animals in as many countries as we possibly can.”
In the USA the NhRP will shortly be filing a lawsuit for elephants, and moving against the captivity of orcas at SeaWorld San Diego.
Steven finds a parallel between US courts denying his nonhuman clients personhood, and personhood being denied in the past to black and Native Americans, and women – unthinkable as that is to us now.
“They were wrong then. They are wrong now”
“With respect to the judges who are ruling that way now, at some point they, or their children, or their grandchildren are going to be embarrassed by the fact that they said such things in cases involving such extraordinary beings as chimpanzees or orcas or elephants.”
I am certain Steven is right. But much as I wish for it, I cannot see how this is going to help all the myriads of other animals in the world. Steven and his team have based the arguments they bring to court on the basis of the autonomy of their (at present captive) clients. The NhRP’s plaintiffs are “members of species who have been scientifically proven to be self-aware and autonomous: currently, great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales.” In their natural state, in the wild, a chimp, an elephant, a dolphin and an orca are all animals, it is universally agreed, who make their own decisions and determine their own lives. That autonomy NhRP says, is more than sufficient for them to be deemed persons. (Remember, you have to be a person to have the right to bodily liberty)
But what of other wildlife – pigeons, rats, frogs, fleas? Aren’t they autonomous too? Don’t they have a right to bodily liberty? But what judge is going to concede their personhood?
And what of the billions and billions of farmed animals? There are massive vested interests determined that cows, pigs, hens and sheep should never be considered autonomous and entitled to legal rights as persons.
Take this, for example, from the Animal Agriculture Alliance‘s home page: “Radical activist organizations are leading the fight to grant animals the same legal rights as humans and eliminate the consumption of food and all other products derived from animals. The ideology of the animal rights movement- that animals are not ours to own, enjoy, or use in any way- is a direct assault on farmers and pet owners.”
In June last year Canadian MPs voted down Nathaniel Erskine-Smith’s Bill C-246 — the Modernizing Animal Protections Act. Mr Erskine-Smith was not proposing animals should be designated persons in law. Nevertheless, Tory MP Robert Sopuck voiced the strong concerns of many about the idea of moving animals out of the property section of the Criminal Code and placing them into the public morals section. He said such a step would have “drastic implications” for farmers, hunters, trappers, anglers, and medical researchers. Clearly many of his fellow MPs agreed. The bill was defeated 198 to 84.
How will these nonhuman animals ever cross that wall that Steven talks about from property to personhood? Humans, especially those who exploit nonhuman animals for profit, will never be willing to give up the power bestowed on them by ownership. And unfortunately, it’s humans who make the laws that decide on the status of animals, and humans who enforce them.
“The Nonhuman Rights Project now, and we hope others in the future, are no longer going to ask. We are going to demand the rights that nonhuman animals are entitled to. The day of animal welfare and animal protection is passing and will soon be over.”
Fighting talk Steven, fighting talk. I so wish it could be true.
Please sign the Declaration of Animal Rights
Watch “Unlocking the Cage” – Full movie