While the death of Harambe the Gorilla has sparked a nationwide debate, one group has been fighting for years to ensure that animals such as chimpanzees and gorillas are granted legal rights (video below).
Steven Wise, president of The Nonhuman Rights Project, believes that animals deserve to be recognized as beings that are granted legal rights. In a TED Talk, he explained that his career as an animal protection lawyer was fruitless because "all of [his] clients, all the animals whose interests [he] was trying to defend, were legal things; they were invisible."
The organization’s mission statement on its official website reads:
Our mission is to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere 'things,' which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to 'persons,' who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.
Regarding the case with Harambe in the Cincinnati Zoo, Wise argued that zoo officials were allowed to kill the gorilla because he had no rights.
"The major problem is that the Cincinnati Zoo is legally permitted to treat such extraordinarily cognitively complex and gentle animals as slaves […] and that Harambe, like every other nonhuman animal, was a legal 'thing' that lacked the capacity for any legal rights, even the fundamental rights to his life and liberty," Wise wrote in the New York Daily News.
In a documentary called "Unlocking the Cage," filmmakers followed lawyers associated with The Nonhuman Rights Project as they constructed and executed pioneering court cases to protect the legal rights of animals.
On Dec. 2, 2013, 28 years after Wise started contemplating the idea that nonhuman animals should be granted legal rights, the organization presented the first lawsuit demanding that a "nonhuman animal be recognized as a legal 'person.'"
Cases were filed on behalf of several chimpanzees. In the first case, it was argued that the animal “could [not] be a person, for any purpose, unless he could assume duties and responsibilities,” which has set the tone for cases up to this point.
"The time has come to recognize the personhood of such cognitively complex beings as the great apes and give them the legal right not to be imprisoned in used trailer lots, cement storefronts, campus basements, and zoos," Wise proclaimed.