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    11.30.11 Animal Rights: Property or Legal Personhood?
    Steven Wise

    On November 11, the Brooklyn Law School Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (BLS SALDF) hosted a dinner with Professor Steven Wise of Vermont Law School, who gave a passionate lecture about the nonhuman animal rights movement. Wise serves as the president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NHRP), where he has worked to devise an extensive plan of action to pursue these rights.

    Wise began his lecture by differentiating two approaches to animal law. Animal slave law, he articulated, is the current body of law that governs animals as property. However, he argued that nonhuman animal rights are supported by basic common law rights for at least some nonhuman animals.

    Wise explained what he calls a “rights pyramid,” at the base of which is what he defines as legal capacity or “legal personhood.” Legal personhood is the basic tenet that supports the other concepts higher up on the pyramid. However, Wise suggested, until courts recognize that animals are no longer considered property, any battle for rights on their behalf will be fruitless. Once animals are given “legal personhood,” they will be capable of being given rights. Only at that point can the discussion turn to “which rights for which animals.”

    According to Wise, this strategy takes into account that no judge will want to “go out on a limb” on behalf of an animal unless there is a justifiable way to differentiate his or her ruling on a chimpanzee or an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin from a chicken or cow that would be on the dinner table that night. To solve this dilemma, Wise proposes that there are four classes of animals measured by a scale that recognizes, among other indicators, consciousness. Wise fully develops this idea in his second book, Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights.

    Wise conceded that changing the way the legal system views animals is no easy task, and said he views the project as a long term endeavor. “As our collective understanding has grown, modern law, social values, scientific knowledge, and morals have all continued to evolve,” Wise said, “and so too should the way we treat nonhuman animals.”

    Cody Carlson ’13, co-president of the BLS SALDF who coordinated the evening, said, “BLS SALDF's mission is to increase students' awareness of the role of law in protecting animals, whether we're talking about companion animals, animals raised for food, wildlife, or nonhuman primates used in research.

    Carlson noted that “animal rights law is fascinating and a multidisciplinary field, touching on criminal law, environmental law, consumer protection, torts, landlord-tenant law, and even—as Professor Wise shows us—philosophy and linguistics.”

    By Jason Stewart ’13