Steven M Wise, Pathbreaking Attorney for Animal Rights, Dies at 73 – The Boston Globe

Steven M Wise, Pathbreaking Attorney for Animal Rights, Dies at 73 - The Boston Globe

The Life and Work of Steven M. Wise: An Advocate for Animal Rights

A Change of Heart: From Personal Injury to Animal Law

Steven M. Wise was an expert in personal injury and criminal defense law when he stumbled across Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation.” The book opened Wise’s eyes to the horrors of how animals, particularly those in factory farms and used for testing products, were treated. This realization changed the direction of Wise’s career, and he became a lifelong advocate for animal rights.

An Uphill Battle: Early Ridicule and Opposition

In his early years as an animal rights lawyer, Wise was often met with mockery and skepticism. He defended rowdy dogs that were meant to be put down because of their barking and biting and spoke out against state-sponsored deer hunting.

A Paradigm-Shifting Approach: Changing the Court System’s Treatment of Animals

Wise had a mission to secure legal rights for animals and to transform a court system that considered them no different than inanimate objects. His belief was that highly intelligent creatures like chimpanzees, whales, elephants, and others deserve fundamental rights, including the right to liberty.

The Nonhuman Rights Project

In 1995, Wise founded the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP). This nonprofit organization focused on securing legal rights for animals by advocating three groups of animal clients, including elephants, great apes, and cetaceans. The NhRP drew on cognitive and behavioral research, arguing that each group is autonomous, self-aware, and cognitively sophisticated, deserving of fundamental rights.

The Habeas Corpus Cases

Wise used habeas corpus petitions as a legal strategy in state court, arguing that they offered a potential remedy for a “legal person” beyond human persons. In December 2013, he filed habeas corpus petitions on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York. Although they gained national news coverage, none of the petitions succeeded in court. However, Wise and his colleagues continued to push forward, filing a habeas corpus case in 2018 on behalf of Happy, an elephant at the Bronx Zoo.

Perseverance Pays Off

On September 21, 2022, the city of Ojai, California, passed what the NhRP calls the first legal recognition of a nonhuman animal’s right to freedom. The ordinance, developed with and supported by the NhRP, protects the right of elephants to bodily liberty, including freedom from forced confinement. Although Wise did not live to see this groundbreaking shift in animal law occur, his advocacy and legal strategies paved the way for future progress.

A Legacy of Compassion and Empathy

Steven M. Wise’s tireless efforts to secure legal rights for animals and challenge a legal system that did not consider animals deserving of fundamental rights will undoubtedly inspire future generations of animal rights advocates and lawyers. His legacy highlights the importance of compassion and empathy in advocating for those who cannot defend themselves.

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