By Pauline Lewis
For the Daily
Animal rights advocate and lawyer Stephen Wise insists that he is involved in animal protection law — not in animal rights. He said the law currently does not recognize the rights of non-humans and that needs to change.
“Nonhuman animals don’t have any legal rights, they are things — property.” In a speech given yesterday at the Michigan League, Wise explained how he hopes to use the current legal system to give basic rights to some animals.
Since Wise began to practice animal protection law in 1981, he said he has been concerned with the question of how “legal things” made the transition to legal persons.
To answer this question, Wise said he looked for a precedent in history. “I kept going back to slavery,” Wise said, pointing out that in places where slavery existed, the law saw slaves as property, and therefore ineligible for basic human rights.
Wise said that just as slaves made the legal transformation from being seen as property into being considered humans that deserve rights, the law should also recognize certain animals as deserving of basic rights.
Wise’s latest book, “Though the Heavens May Fall,” tells the story of how an 18th-century British court case debating the legal status of a slave brought about the eventual abolition of slavery in Great Britain. Wise said he hopes that his book is seen as not only a story of abolitionism in England, “but also as a metaphor of how any legal thing can attempt to assert its personhood in a court.”
Wise spoke about why certain animals deserve legal rights and how lawyers, like himself, can use the current legal system to achieve those rights. Wise asserts that not all animals deserve rights, only species that have a degree of autonomy and self-recognition. “If you have a sense of self, if you really care what happens to you, you know that you exist.”
Wise defined these basic rights as the right to bodily liberty and bodily integrity, meaning that animals cannot be physically restrained or harmed. Wise pointed out that animals that are more closely related to humans are more likely to gain rights.
“Those of us who have had the opportunity to look a chimpanzee in the eye know that we are looking at a creature who is almost like us,” he added.
Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts, a Masters student in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, said he agrees that granting rights to animals is not only the right thing to do, but also that it is inevitable.
“I believe that as our species has evolved, we have extended justices past race and other differences, and I think that different species will be next,” Fischlowitz-Roberts said.
The event was co-sponsored by the Michigan Animal Rights Society and the Student Animal Defense Legal Fund. Co-chair of SADLF and second year law student, Jaime Olin, helped organized the event. “He was one of the first people we thought about, he is so well known and respected in both animal law and in the legal world.”