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If Corporations Have Rights Like People, Shouldn't Animals?

In a nation where corporations are people and others want fetuses to be, a core of philosophers and attorneys are trying develop laws to declare animals “legal persons.”

On December 19, 1994, animal protection lawyer Steven Wise — a deeply patient man — was frustrated. A decade into his 25-year plan to upend the fundamental legal principle that animals are property or “things” with no more rights than a table or bicycle, he was barely making a dent.

Wise’s passion for animal rights dates to 1979 when reading philosopher Peter Singer’s landmark book Animal Liberation proved both revelation and rude awakening. “I really felt that I could not really un-ring that bell,” he says. “There was more injustice there to be fought than any I could think of anywhere in the universe.”

Wise had found his calling. His grand ambition is for nothing short of a legal revolution. He wants to systematically overturn more than 2,000 years of law by winning basic common law rights for other sentient beings we now know suffer, feel fear, have complex emotions, and possess sometimes startling levels of intelligence. Welfare laws notwithstanding, unless they are “legal persons,” to Wise they have no rights at all in the eyes of the law and therefore their lives don’t count.

He had no illusions that change could come any way but slowly. “I realized this wasn’t like a 1930s Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland thing where they say, ‘Hey! Let’s put on a show!” But on that watershed day in December — his 44th birthday — he had an epiphany.

“I woke up and said this is not going fast enough,” he recalls, “and if I’m going to be pivotal in gaining legal rights for nonhuman animals — which I thought I was, and I think I will be — I’d better get moving.”

He walked away from his comfortable 18-year law partnership and founded The Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights, the world’s first nonprofit dedicated to achieving legal rights for nonhuman primates, and later the Nonhuman Rights Project.

In 2000, primate researcher Jane Goodall, who wrote the foreword, called his book, titled Rattling the Cage, “the animals’ Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence and Universal Declaration of Rights all in one.” The Yale Law Journal dubbed him a “piston” of the animal rights movement.

Wise subscribes to Darwin’s belief that any sharp dichotomy between human beings and other animals cannot survive a basic understanding of evolution.
It’s what legal scholar David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law and editor-in-chief of the Animal Legal & Historical Web Center, calls the culture of, “How special are we humans? Do we deserve a place of the gods in which we simply use everything else on the planet?”
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Animal law is a growth industry. “I would call it an emerging field,” says Frankie Trull, founder and president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. “It’s in its infancy.” Harvard and Georgetown law schools first offered animal law courses in 1999. Now, approximately 121 U.S. law schools, including the top 10, offer them. There are 160 Student Animal Legal Defense Fund chapters nationally. And by April 2011, 47 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands had elevated some animal cruelty crimes from misdemeanors to felonies.

Steven Wise taught animal rights law at Harvard and at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. He is now an adjunct professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Oregon, home of the U.S.’s first environmental law journal and, since 1995, the journal Animal Law. And Wise was well ahead of the curve in 1980 when he filed his first veterinarian malpractice suit. A dog owner left her dog playing with a big stick and returned to find half of the stick missing. Fearing he’d swallowed it, she rushed him straight to a veterinarian. Negligence — the wrong X-ray view — failed to reveal the stick inside the dog, and after suffering through the night, he died. Wise found satisfaction in suing for damages.

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