There is no denying that dolphins and whales are extremely intelligent and social creatures — research has backed up this concept for decades. Now a group of animal rights advocates is taking this a step further and is seeking legal rights for the majestic species.
According to a profile in Wired magazine, over the next several years, the Nonhuman Rights Project intends to make its case in a court of law. If successful, a dolphin could become the first non-human to be considered a legal person.
“The problem so far is that all nonhuman animals are seen as being legal things,” said Steven Wise, an animal law scholar, attorney and founder of the project. “If you’re a legal person, you have the capacity to have rights. That’s the fundamental problem we intend to attack.”
Wise has been addressing the issue of animals, rights and the law for years. Author of "Rattling the Cage" and "Drawing the Line," in which he makes a case for giving legal rights to chimpanzees and bonobos, and introduces the idea of considering animals on species-by-species terms. He founded the Nonhuman Rights Project in 2007 as an organization to fight for legal rights on behalf of animals.
Will it be an easy journey? Not at all. “There would be tremendous resistance. People would worry — ‘What are the limits? Is every animal in a zoo going to have a lawyer?’ ” Richard Posner, a judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, told Wired. “In the foreseeable future it wouldn’t have traction.”
But Wise perseveres, and with tenacity. In the three decades since he has been involved in animal law, he notes that society has evolved in ways that once appeared unthinkable: "Ethical vegetarianism is mainstream, cute animal videos rule our collective subconscious, and people like himself are invited to lecture at Harvard."
Not long ago, legal rights for whales and dolphins would have seen like a New Age lark, but now evidence is overwhelming that cetaceans are special — if not to the courts yet, at least to researchers.
What are the chances that cretaceous legal rights may become a reality?
“The Nonhuman Rights Project is not a case or two. It’s a process,” said Wise. “If we win, we’ll file our next suit in that jurisdiction. If we lose, we might file in a different jurisdiction. We’ll listen carefully to what judges are saying. We will continue to push and push and push.” He continued, “We understand the difficulties ahead of us, and what barriers we have to overcome, but you have to begin somewhere. And we intend to win.”