Animal rights lawyer Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project with Teko, a chimpanzee. Wise appears on Thursday before a state appeals court in Manhattan to argue for habeas corpus petitions for two chimpanzees being kept in New York.
Animal rights lawyer Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project with Teko, a chimpanzee. Wise appears on Thursday before a state appeals court in Manhattan to argue for habeas corpus petitions for two chimpanzees being kept in New York. (Courtesy of HBO)

Animal rights attorney Steven Wise appears on Thursday before a state appeals court in Manhattan to argue in support of habeas corpus petitions on behalf of two captive chimpanzees, the latest battle in his nearly 30-year fight for the personhood of animals.

Wise, president of the Coral Gables, Florida-based Nonhuman Rights Project, has experienced a string of rulings against him by New York courts.

But as he prepares to go before a panel of the Appellate Division, First Department, to argue on behalf of chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko, which he has represented since 2013 and has fought to transfer to a sanctuary in Florida, Wise is supported by the growth of the field of animal law as well as better science on the cognitive abilities of chimps.

“We’re trying to bring them to a place where they’re autonomous, to live a life as free as they choose,” Wise said.

Wise, 65, began practicing law in 1977 after getting his JD from the Boston University School of Law. He began a general practice with a friend from law school, working mostly personal injury and criminal defense cases.

But around 1980, Wise read Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation,” considered to be the philosophical underpinning of the animal rights movement.

Until that point, Wise had never been an animal rights activist, nor had any extraordinary connections with animals growing up, besides having pet dogs and cats in the house.

Singer’s book, however, opened his eyes to the sheer number of animals being abused and killed. And while courts had addressed animal issues throughout history, and animal welfare laws are nothing new, he saw a need for more advocates to fight for their rights. It fit well with his motivation for becoming a lawyer in the first place, he said—to fight for social justice.

“They were essentially being treated as slaves and I said ‘It looks like they need a lawyer,’” Wise said.

In 1985, Wise became president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a position he held for 10 years. In 1990, he began teaching a course on animal rights law at Vermont Law School and, at the time, he knew of only two others of its kind.

In one of his first cases, in 1991, he filed suit in federal court in Massachusetts on behalf of a dolphin, held at an aquarium, that was being transferred to the Navy for training. The case was dismissed outright for lack of standing.

Since then, he has taken his fight to state courts, which rely more on common law than the federal courts, where decisions tend to follow pre-existing statutory law. He was attracted to New York courts because of the “rich common law tradition” there and because the writ of habeas corpus is established in the state’s common law.

“We had very, very specific arguments,” Wise said. “More and more people, lawyers included, began to take us seriously.”

In the cases he is set to bring before the First Department, the Nonhuman Rights Project is representing Tommy, who lives on a farm in upstate New York; Kiko, a former television performer, lives in a Niagara Falls primate sanctuary that the group argues is not a suitable environment for the animal.

Tommy is owned by Patrick Lavery, and Kiko lives at the Primate Sanctuary in Niagara Falls, which is operated by Carmen and Christie Presti. The defendants were not compelled to appear at the arguments. Wise was dealt a blow by the Albany-based Appellate Division, Third Department, which found that his clients didn’t qualify for “personhood” because they did not have any duties or responsibilities to society.

“In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights—such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus—that have been afforded to human beings,” Justice Karen Peters wrote for the court in the 2014 decision.

The state Court of Appeals declined to hear the case.

The Nonhuman Rights Project then took its fight to Manhattan, but Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe dealt the group another loss, finding that was she was bound by the Third Department’s ruling.

But regardless of how the First Department rules, Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project plan to push forward with their cause, and are in the process of filing suit on behalf of an elephant in the coming weeks. They are also looking for venues to bring suits on behalf of orcas.

“We are on the cusp of changing the legal relationship between nonhuman animals and humans,” Wise said on the Nonhuman Rights Project’s website. “The time is now to push even harder, as hard as we can.”