nonhuman rights

ANNA McHUGH: One of the most exciting court cases of our time is all about animals. Earlier this year a group of lawyers and activists called the Nonhuman Rights Project applied for recognition of the right to ‘bodily liberty’ of four chimpanzees – Tommy, Hercules, Leo and Kiko. This represents a huge change to the way the law thinks about animals. As the NhRP website explains:

While there are hundreds of “animal rights” organizations, the only animal who has any legal rights at all is the human animal. And this is the first time anyone has gone to court in the United States seeking to obtain a legal right for a nonhuman animal. So we have entered into entirely new legal territory.

The case may go on for some time, because the commercial implications of a judgment in the NhRP’s favour are immense. However, this is not simply about money. The Nonhuman Rights Project is asking the law in America to reconsider what counts as a person.

What makes a person? 

What do you think makes a person? This is a great question to ask yourself, and a class of animal lovers as well. Most people say that a person is a human being, but that’s just swapping synonyms. So put it this way, if you were asked what the recipe for a human being was, people often say it’s something which:

  • has feelings like love, hate, confusion, desire, boredom, anger, or frustration
  • can communicate those feelings in language
  • understands that they are there, and that what’s going on in their head is different to what’s going on in others’ heads
  • Makes decisions and understands that they have choice and a degree of freedom to decide things
  • Uses tools to make things different, or to make them conform more exactly to the requirements of a task

All of these things are common to both human and chimpanzee animals. This means that rights which humans enjoy, such as the right to decide where they live, when and if they should have babies, and live without fear of being harmed or pestered – all of these rights should be enjoyed by chimpanzees.

Persons vs Things 

When we ask why we should be kind to animals, many people say that it’s not nice to be cruel. But this still leaves animals at our mercy. If we change our definition of kindness – and everyone defines it slightly differently – they could still end up suffering. The Nonhuman Rights Project is hoping to achieve something which will give chimpanzees the same protection that we have, because they’re trying to prove that there is no difference between some types of animal – we are all ‘persons’, not things.

Before slavery was abolished, the law saw slaves as a thing. They weren’t people; they had the same status as a box, or a lamp. They could be bought and sold, split up or forbidden to marry, have children, or learn how to read. They could be killed or maimed. Their owners could not be punished for it because the slaves weren’t people, they were things. In the same way that you might treat your car very badly, but won’t be punished for hurting your car, neither will the owners of Tommy, the chimpanzee because he’s just a thing.

Classroom Activities 

The NhRP website contains lots of complex legal information, but you can make a digest of it to discuss with a class. Some activities which lead into, or out from, this fascinating case include:

Recipe for a human being activity_Feature Image1) Recipe for a human being 

Write a recipe for a human being! What makes us really human? Try to go beyond simply saying that we live in houses and have two legs. Talk about the really deep things that define us as humans, like knowing which medicine to take when we’re sick – and why. Or being able to choose one thing over another when both are available, and explaining our answer. Maybe even spiritual things like knowing that we don’t live forever, or that there’s a world beyond our planet. What would students say if they discovered that another animal on the planet could do all those things? Would they extend the definition of ‘person’ to them too? Download the free ‘Recipe for a human being’ worksheet

2) Learn Chimpanzee 

Try learning chimpanzee! A small dictionary of chimpanzee gestures has just been published in the journal Current Biology. You can read a digest of it here:

Chimp language

3) Define ‘smartness’ 

Elephants and chimpanzees are well-known for being smart. But what is smartness, really? We’ve all seen the absent-minded professor in movies: someone who’s super smart in the classroom, but not so clever in the supermarket. Ask students to choose one species and investigate its intelligence. provides a helpful class-sized list! Students should compile a list of questions to research, and at the end, decide what they mean by smartness. Then the class could vote on which animal seems the smartest.

4) Study a nonhuman species’ social behaviour 

Everyone learns a little bit of civics and citizenship at school. But we frequently assume that our way of organising society is the best. In fact, we could learn from many species about efficiency, harmony, and conservation. Allow students to research another species’ social behaviour. They should write a description of how the society is set up, and provide a graphic (such as an org chart or family tree), as well as a list of elements which we could learn from them. Bonobo monkeys are a famous example, though if your class culture is conservative, this may be one to steer away from since bobobo society is highly sexual. For an opposing view of animal society, read aloud some extracts from The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White: Merlin turns Wart into a bird, an ant, and a fish so that he can experience different societies.

Further reading:

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