Tuesday, October 01, 2002

WISE ON RIGHTS

A CONVERSATION WITH STEVEN WISE
A Courtroom Champion for 4-Legged Creatures
By CLAUDIA DREIFUS

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Among the high-flying lawyers who roam the halls of Harvard Law School, Steven M. Wise, 51, is an oddity. Instead of devoting himself to the fine points of torts or contracts, he teaches the school's first ever course in animal rights law.

Moreover, Mr. Wise, who runs a small law firm that litigates for the interests of animals, has written two well-reviewed books on the subject, "Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals" and the recently released "Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights."

Mr. Wise spends much of his time trying to develop legal theories to advance his cause. "Almost all my work is directed toward breaching the legal wall that separates humans from nonhumans," he said over coffee at the Charles Hotel. "I'm interested in getting the first nonhuman animals their rights because I think once that happens the paradigm will shift. I'm very practical about this. It's going to take a while."...

Q. Would you give us the outlines of arguments you've pioneered?
A. I've been trying to apply those traditional sources of our most basic rights — liberty and equality — to nonhuman animals. I've argued that some of them are entitled to basic legal rights for the same reasons humans are.

The first, the liberty argument, is that some nonhuman animals — great apes, African gray parrots — have a kind of autonomy that judges should easily recognize as sufficient for legal rights.

The second is an equality argument. It goes: Because some individuals have rights, others who are like them must be allowed rights too. A human infant who is born without a brain has all kinds of liberties, even though she isn't autonomous. You can't kill her, enslave her or perform experiments on her. If you can give her rights, the principle of equality requires us to give them to a bonobo who has high levels of cognition, a great deal of mental complexity and who probably has a protolanguage....

Q. How will the rights of animals change as our definition of what is an animal changes because of gene manipulations, hybridizations and xenografting?
A. That's a big question. At the moment, only humans bear rights, but soon we'll be wondering, What is a human?

I've often speculated on what we would do legally if we suddenly found a holdout band of Neanderthals who'd survived in some hidden part of Andalusia. Would we consider them Homo sapiens and thus rights-bearers or would we define them as animals and, therefore, things? Would we do to them what we do to chimpanzees — eat them, perform tests on them, put them in zoos?....