Around the world, what the media often refer to as “the animal rights movement” is taking off. Mass protests, fierce lobbying, litigation, and draft treaties have led to new legislation at the national, provincial, and city levels. It is now forbidden to use great apes in biomedical research, to bullfight in Catalonia, and to operate factory farms and slaughterhouses without adhering to the stricter rules governing the treatment and living conditions of livestock. However, with a few exceptions, these efforts are not truly about “animal rights” but about “animal welfare.”

One reason for this difference is that worldwide, animals are regarded as “legal things,” incapable of having rights and treated as articles of property. In contrast, humans are deemed “legal persons,” possessing intrinsic value and the capacity for an infinite number of legal rights as the owners of “legal things.” Another reason is that the term “animal” encompasses the enormously diverse biological kingdom of animalia, which comprises more than 1.25 million known species (with more to be discovered) that fall along a vast continuum of consciousness, sentience, general intelligence, and autonomy. It includes 60,000 vertebrates: 5,500 mammals, 10,000 birds, 6,200 amphibians, 30,000 fish, and 8,200 reptiles. The million-plus known invertebrates include about 950,000 varieties of insects, 81,000 mollusks, and 40,000 crustaceans.

At one end of this spectrum of mental capacity and awareness are animals such as sponges, jellyfish, and sea anemones that scientists believe are unlikely to be conscious or have an ability to feel pain or suffer. These are therefore unlikely to be appropriate subjects of animal welfare legislation (which focuses on preventing unnecessary pain and suffering), though they may be protected by environmental or conservation laws.

At some point along this continuum, however, a primitive level of consciousness and sentience kicks in. A great number of animals fall in this category, such as cows and sheep. These animals have been the subject of welfare legislation ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when early animal welfare movements in the United Kingdom sought to end cruel practices such as beatings and other inhumane treatment. Since then, the animal rights movement has struggled to make further progress with these types of animals. In 2000, an international group of venerable animal welfare organizations proposed the Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare (UDAW), which sought to reduce unnecessary cruelty toward the suffering of animals. In 2005, an intergovernmental steering committee was assembled to improve UDAW’s chances of adoption. It received endorsements from a number of national veterinary associations, the World Organization for Animal Health, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Council of the European Union. UDAW’s organizing values embrace the principles that animated the nineteenth-century anticruelty legislation.

Animals at the continuum’s other end—including great apes, cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), and elephants—possess a complex consciousness and self-consciousness, exquisite sentience, robust general intelligence, and a powerful sense of autonomy. They, too, have long received some protection from unnecessary cruelty. But rapid scientific advances over the last half century have demonstrated that their advanced levels of cognition leave them inadequately protected by anticruelty and similar legislation.

For example, chimpanzees can reflect upon their thoughts. They have powerful memories, can anticipate and prepare for the future, and even have a sense of moral agency—they ostracize those who violate social norms and respond negatively to inequitable situations. When playing economic games, chimpanzees spontaneously make fair offers and have a simple understanding of numbers. They have amaterial, social, and symbolic culture. For example, through a discipline known as “chimpanzee archaeology,” it was discovered that some 4,300 years ago, chimps living in the rainforests of the Ivory Coast used stone tools to crack nuts. They passed this cracking technique over 200 generations of chimpanzees.These and other scientific advances have catalyzed a new and growing twenty-first-century “animal rights movement” that demands legal rights to protect these animals’ fundamental interests.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, which I lead, is a pioneer when it comes to pushing for animal rights. We are working with legal groups on three other continents to assist them in achieving legal personhood for “nonhuman animals.” We filed the first animal rights cases in the United States in 2013, in which we argued that four chimpanzees—Tommy, Kiko, Hercules, and Leo—were being held unlawfully by their alleged owners and were entitled to be released pursuant to a common-law writ of habeas corpus (one of the attractions of a common-law writ of habeas corpus is that it allows us to file suit on behalf of another who is being imprisoned). Our goal is to have these and other autonomous and self-determining animals declared to be legal persons, at least when it comes to unlawful detention.

The roots of the animal rights movement do not lie in the anticruelty legislation of the nineteenth century; they reach deeper into the worldwide antislavery movements that began in the eighteenth century and flowered into the broad international human rights movement of the twentieth century.

These newer animal rights campaigners’ demands for fundamental legal rights for nonhumans are often misinterpreted as demanding “human rights” for nonhuman animals. But that is not correct; the new animal rights practitioners recognize that our subjects are not human. We are demanding legal rights that are appropriate to the levels of cognition that scientists are able to determine through their work with nonhuman animals both in the wild and in captivity. Therefore, chimpanzees are entitled to “chimpanzee rights,” elephants to “elephant rights,” and orcas to “orca rights.”  

The Nonhuman Rights Project spent years determining in which jurisdiction it would file its initial cases, finally settling on New York State. We identified seven chimpanzees and decided to file suit on behalf of two. But they both died, as did a third, before we could sue. We decided to pursue our case on behalf of the four survivors.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks, among other things, to humanity’s dignity, entitlement to equal and inalienable rights, recognition as a legal person, and rights to life, liberty, equality, security, and freedom from enslavement. There is no rational reason why autonomous and self-determining nonhuman animals should not also possess equal and inalienable rights, recognition as a legal person, and rights to life, liberty, equality, security, and freedom from enslavement.

Over the centuries, we humans have slowly and painfully developed a core of near universal values and principles intended to protect our most fundamental interests. It is time we recognize that we share the planet with other species with similar fundamental interests and that our failure to protect those interests both wrongs the animals and subverts the core values and principles that protect our own.

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  • STEVEN M. WISE is President of the Nonhuman Rights Project. He has practiced animal protection law for 30 years throughout the United States. He is the author of four books, including Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals (2000) and Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights (2003).
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