Animal Personhood: A Debate

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Some animal rights activists have maintained for years that animals deserve many of the same basic legal rights that humans have. Though “animal personhood” might be perceived as a niche issue, the legal status of animals such as apes, dolphins, elephants and whales reaches far beyond the realm of animal rights—to the food, pharmaceutical, tourism and entertainment industries and more. Recently, animal rights supporters have begun turning to the legal system for help. In late 2013, the animal rights organization Nonhuman Rights Project filed lawsuits in New York State to establish the “legal personhood” of four chimpanzees and relocate them to outdoor sanctuaries. While intermediate appellate courts have rejected the Nonhuman Rights Project’s argument, the group has publicly stated its intention to appeal to the Court of Appeals, New York State’s highest court.

These lawsuits were the first in the United States to seek limited personhood rights for animals with advanced cognitive abilities. At the core of the lawsuits are fundamental questions about the legal status of animals. Is the concept of animal rights more about the restriction of human activity, or about truly granting rights to animals? Do current animal welfare laws provide sufficient protections to animals? Should animals have the ability to challenge their own detention, though the writ of habeas corpus?


  • Prof. Richard L. Cupp, John W. Wade Professor of Law, Pepperdine University School of Law
  • Mr. Steven M. Wise, President, Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc.
  • Moderator: Hon. A. Raymond Randolph, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit