Steven Wise, animal rights champion, dies at 73

Steven M. Wise, a pioneering animal rights attorney who gave voice to clients who could not testify on their own behalf, demanding the same moral and legal rights as their owners, keepers and keepers, died Feb. 15 at his home in Coral Springs, Fla. He was 73 years old.

The cause was complications from glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, said his child Siena Wise.

Like John Scopes, the Tennessee evolution teacher who was at the center of the so-called monkey trial nine decades earlier, Mr. Wise lost his legal battles — trying in his case, not to upgrade the animals as our immediate ancestors on the human family tree, but to recognize their own personhood. as cognitive, emotional and social beings who have the same moral and statutory right to freedom as humans. (Unlike Mr. Wise, John Scopes won on appeal.)

Mr. Wise was the first president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund and founder and president Inhuman Rights Project. He has also taught animal rights courses at Harvard and other law schools.

He has written several books, including “Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals” (2000), which lawyer Cass R, Sunstein, in a New York Times review, called “a passionate, fascinating, and in many ways astonishing book”; “Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights” (2002); “Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Ended Human Slavery” (2005), the best-selling English case that established a slave as a person with legal rights; and “The American Trilogy: Death, Slavery and Domination on the Banks of the Cape Fear River” (2009).

In 2013, after decades of legal and scholarly research, the Inhuman Rights Project filed what it characterized as a revolutionary writ of habeas corpus—requiring authorities to bring a detained person before a judge. However, the petition was not for a human being, but for Tommy, a chimpanzee kept in a shed in a used trailer lot in Gloversville, NY, by a man who said he rescued him from an even worse place.

Previously, lawyers have expanded the definition of animal welfare (as opposed to animal rights) to include the treatment of animals in scientific research and in animal husbandry. Comparing legal attitudes toward animals to pre-Civil War human slavery, Mr. Wise said animal rights laws would offer more protection than statues against cruelty than, for example, state-sponsored deer hunting and the Navy’s deployment of dolphins to life-threatening duties.

“Certain species are capable of complex emotions, can communicate using language, and have a sense of self,” Mr. Wise said in a 2005 lecture, “all characteristics that once defined humanity.”

“I see no difference,” he added, “between a chimpanzee and my four-year-old son.”

After losing in a lower court, Mr. Wise argued before a panel of the Appellate Division in Albany, N.Y., that Tommy “can understand the past, can anticipate the future and suffer in solitary confinement as much as a human being.”

Mr. Wise was not proposing a “Planet of the Apes” scenario or suggesting that animals be given the right to vote; rather, he was proposing what he called “bodily freedom” in one of the eight reserves in the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.

In an interview for a non-profit organization My dreams for animalsdefined bodily liberty: “Our cases are not whether they are treated well or ill in captivity—but whether they should be kept in captivity at all.”

But the appeals court unanimously ruled against the idea of ​​giving Tommy the legal status of a person, akin to the protections granted to corporations, holding that, “unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, be subject to social responsibilities, or be held legally responsible for their actions.”

“In our view,” the court said, “it is precisely this inability to bear any legal responsibility and social duties that makes it inappropriate to grant legal rights to chimpanzees.”

Around the same time, habeas corpus writs filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project on behalf of three other chimpanzees in New York state also lost in court, although Stony Brook University returned the animal it studied to the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana.

Tommy was featured in the 2016 Inhuman Rights Project documentary “Unlocking the Cage” directed by Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker. According to some sources, he also appeared with Matthew Broderick in the 1987 film Project X.

Mr. Wise suggested that eight other species might deserve the same rights as chimpanzees: gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, African gray parrots, dogs, bees and African elephants (including one at the Bronx Zoo, whose legal status his organization failed challenged).

He cited a test conducted on great apes whose faces were dabbed with a red dot. When they looked in the mirror, they reached for a point on their faces, not in the reflection, which indicates a sense of self.

The notion of nonhuman animal rights has troubled a number of legal scholars, notably Richard A. Posner, a former federal judge who taught at the University of Chicago.

“If we fail to maintain a clear line between animals and humans,” Mr. Posner once said, “We may end up treating people as badly as we treat animals.”

Other scientists disagree. Laurence H. Tribe, professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, said in an email that Mr. Wise “will be remembered beyond our time as one of the most influential and visionary pioneers in the history of animal rights and animal welfare.”

“Steve’s writing, litigation strategy, and organizational energy have taken our efforts to protect nonhuman animals from untold injustices to a new and promising level,” added Professor Tribe.

Martha C. Nussbaum, a philosopher and professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, said of Mr. Wise that she “disagrees with his theoretical approach, but has great respect for him and supports his practical efforts.” So far, Professor Nussbaum said by email, those efforts on behalf of chimpanzees and elephants “have only convinced dissenting judges, but that’s the first step toward convincing the majority.”

Steven Mark Wise was born on December 19, 1950 in Baltimore to Selma (Rosen) Wise, a homemaker, and Sidney Wise, a NATO consultant.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., in 1972. His involvement in the campus anti-war movement sparked a concern for social justice and led him to study law at Boston University, where he earned a degree in 1976.

In 1980, after a friend gave him a copy of Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (1975), Mr. Wise was transformed from an unfulfilled personal injury and criminal defense attorney into an ardent rights crusader. animal.

He initially defended individual animals, including dogs sentenced to death for attacking humans, and was president of the Animal Legal Protection Fund from 1985 to 1995. He then founded the Center for the Advancement of Fundamental Rights, which became known as the Inhuman Rights Project.

In addition to Sienna Wise, his child from his marriage to Debra Slater, which ended in divorce, Mr. Wise is survived by his wife, Gail Price-Wise; daughter Roma Augusta from his first marriage to Marylou Masterpole, which also ended in divorce; son Christopher from his marriage to Mrs. Slater; and brother Robert. He is also survived by Yogi, a Yorkshire Terrier/Maltese mix, whom he described as his canine companion.

(Tommy, the chimpanzee, is believed to have died in 2022 at a zoo in Michigan.)

Given his upbringing, Mr. Wise was an incredible advocate for animal rights. He revoked that his mother “always served him meat to eat” and that she wore a mink coat. He had dogs and a goldfish as pets, he said, but as for his relationship with other animals, “I never had any contact with them except for eating.”

However, when he was 11, he was so appalled by how chickens were crammed into cages at a farmers market that he wrote to a state legislator to complain. He later became a vegetarian and stopped wearing leather.

“I try to respect non-human animals,” he told The Times in 2002. “I don’t eat them. I don’t wear them. I try to avoid being involved in their abuse. But you grow up with certain things. Sometimes I’ll be walking down the street and smell roast beef; I will feel attraction and repulsion at the same time.”

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