|MF: Mike Fry |
BN: Beth Nelson
MM: Michael Mountain
MF: I’m looking forward to the next conversation we’re jumping into with Michael Mountain, who is with Earth in Transition. He’s also part of the Non-Humans Rights Project that has been making a lot of news recently on a topic that I am just enthralled with. It goes, I believe, to the core of who humans are and how we are with the animals around us. We see ourselves as so unique and special, but I don’t think that we are, and I think that they’re doing some important groundbreaking work to tear a bit of that wall down. It’s important work.
Welcome to Animal Wise Radio, Michael. You’re going to need to tee this up and explain what I just said to some of our listeners.
BN: Good luck with that, Michael.
MM: I will try to do that. Let’s start with tearing down the wall, as you say, because that really is the key thing. It’s something I became involved in because I was looking for what could really make a difference in a relatively short amount of time for all the other animals.
As you know, I’ve been involved with companion animals for 25-30 years basically, and things are doing so much better for them these days, but for all the other animals, it is frankly just a complete disaster. That’s what I was looking for. Lots of wildlife organizations doing good things and antivivisection and the folks against the factory farms, but there is still this giant wall as it were, as you said, that separates all humans from all other animals, specifically in the whole legal world.
Humans have all kinds of rights and are treated in a particular way legally, and all other animals are treated simply as pieces of property that have no rights at all – zero. In fact, the whole notion of the animal rights movement is a complete contradiction in terms, because animals have no rights, except for humans.
I met up at one point with Stephen Wise, who is an attorney who I’ve known on and off for several years, and knew that he was planning some court cases, but didn’t know much about them. The more I talked to him about it, the more I thought, “This could really make a difference.”
He was planning to go to court with just a particular animal who was imprisoned, either in a circus or a zoo or somebody’s home, something like that – exotic wildlife or whatever – and make the case. He has studied this for 30 years, so he really knows what he’s doing. He was going to make the case that this nonhuman animal is self-aware, autonomous, fits all the descriptions of what makes you in court a legal person, and say that in case, a chimpanzee has the actual legal right not to be kept in a prison-like situation.
We all started working on this quite feverishly, and finally it was now two weeks again tomorrow, we filed the first three cases in courts in New York asking judges to release each of four in fact captive chimpanzees – all the chimpanzees we could find in the state of New York, and declare them to be legal persons.
We’ll talk about that in a minute, because that’s different from being human. A person isn’t a human, and that’s a detail that we get into. To declare them legal persons and say that they have the right not to be imprisoned and release them so that they can go to a good sanctuary, that’s what we did.
MF: Honestly, in looking through the legal work, I think I had a similar reaction the people who are covering it in the mainstream press. There’s an initial reaction I think the mainstream press has largely had, which is they see the title and they say, “Oh my gosh – these people are nuts!” Then they actually read the legal arguments, and they’re absolutely rock solid.
BN: It goes to Michael saying we’re not saying the chimp is human, but we’re saying that they should actually have some kind of rights.
MM: Particular rights, exactly. You don’t have to be a human to be a legal person. It’s a legal term that applies to corporations, which as you know are considered legal persons. If you’re a legal person, it means you can have your day in court, basically. Ships are considered legal persons for all sorts of arcane reasons.
MF: In some countries, ecosystems have been granted person status.
MM: In New Zealand, there’s a particular river that has been granted legal person status and the Maori people, the tribe who live in and around that river, are the designated guardians of that river just as a parent is considered the legal guardian of a child who is also a legal person, but the child can't stand up in court herself, so it’s the guardian who stands in for her. That’s exactly what we’re looking for in this case.
MF: On the first blush of it, it seems so out of the expected terminology for people. They may have a little bit of a bristling effect, but when you actually look and see that there are multiple instances of nonhumans being granted personhood by the courts, it suddenly becomes a very rational, logical conversation, the details of which we’re going to get into when we come back from this break.
People can find more information about this effort and this project at www.nonhumanrightsproject.org. There’s going to be ways that you can help.
MF: I just have to take a breath.
BN: He’s getting all tingly over there.
MF: I am. Michael Mountain is one of my favorite guests whenever he’s on. He’s passionate. He’s articulate. He takes topics that a lot of people just can't handle well, and he articulates them so well. I just love having him on.
The topic we’re talking about is also a particularly meaty and important one. Humans have drawn this arbitrary lines between us and every other living thing on the planet. Many of us have grown up believing we’re sentient. Humans are sentient. We know ourselves. We’re all so special, and animals are these little automatons that can't think or feel.
BN: Purely instinctual.
MF: Science has now proven that’s not true, but we still run around the planet acting that it is. The work of the Nonhuman Rights Project right now is actually – pardon me, Michael, if I’m not putting the words together perfectly – but they’re wanting to prove in court that’s the case for a handful of animals; to, from a legal perspective in the United States, punch a hole through that wall. Is that a fair way to say it?
MM: That’s exactly it. We can't say this for all kind of animals, but we can certainly say that the science is now there for some particular species that the same science that we use to talk about what kind of rights children should have, people who are very old, mentally disabled in some way, and so on, and courts look at what their rights are depending on essentially how self-aware they are and how autonomous – meaning that they are able to think about what they want to do today and plan their life accordingly. Young children, for example, don’t think that way, so they don’t have the same rights, for example, that you have as an adult.
There are certain animals where the science is absolutely rock solid, and that is all the great apes – that means chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans, and you can say the same thing for many kinds of dolphins and whales, in particular the bottle-nosed dolphins, the orcas (the killer whales at Sea World, for example) and you can say the same thing for elephants. The science is there and absolutely solid that these animals are self-aware, that they are cognitively complex in many, many ways, and they are autonomous. They think. They plan their lives. They think about what happened yesterday and what they’re going to do tomorrow, and things like that.
MF: They have their own cultures within their family units that they share and pass down.
MM: Exactly. My family, the way that we crack nuts and go on foraging expeditions and so on might be quite different from the way your family of chimpanzees does it. That’s all part of being autonomous and having what they call ‘culture’ which is learned behavior that’s passed on from one generation to another. They teach it to their children. It’s not instinctive. It’s stuff that you learn.
BN: Going back to the basics of this filing in New York, the Nonhuman Rights Project, the legal team, Stephen Wise, is laying out a case in front of the court to say …
MM: We were just going to do it initially with one chimpanzee, but when we went to pay a first visit just to investigate what was going on with this roadside zoo, basically, we discovered that Merlin, who is the chimpanzee’s name, his chief companion, a chimpanzee called Reba, had just died prematurely from being in captivity. We thought, “We’re going to have to speed this up a little bit, because we don’t want the same thing to happen to Merlin.”
When we were getting ready to file a suit on his behalf and he was going to be the first test case on this, we got back to the roadside zoo and found out that he had just died. It was shocking, the way that he had died. He died basically of an abscessed tooth, which nobody had taken any notice of. He’d been pacing back and forth actually punching himself in face, poor thing, trying to get rid of the pain. When they finally got the veterinarian in, he just passed away during surgery. There was another case of another chimpanzee dying prematurely.
We talked about all of this, and thought this was really horrible for these poor creatures. We decided to do a clean sweep of the whole of New York. We looked for all the chimpanzees, and there were four of them left. We filed suit in three different counties, three different lawsuits on behalf of four chimpanzees.
One of them is currently living in a small cage in a dark shed in a used trailer lot, and his name is Tommy. He became the poster boy. As you were reading some of the news articles and what was on TV and so on, they were all talking about Tommy, because he’s just the classic case of this really bad abuse.
MF: The selection of chimpanzees as the focal point I think is a fascinating and correct choice for multiple perspectives. Number one, if you look at chimpanzees and bonobos, they’re our closest biological relatives. We share more DNA with them than any other animals on the planet.
Number two, I’ve seen some photos of some chimps close up and you wonder, “Is that a person, or is that a chimpanzee?” They look like us. They’re so much like us. I have in my wildest speculations about this, I think about times when we have declared nonhuman status to actual humans – tribal people who live in the rain forest or whatever, and we treat them as nonhumans, and I see the lines between a tribal chimpanzee group and how they live versus how a tribal human lives in some of those places, and I don’t see a lot of difference, Michael.
MM: There is not a lot of difference. That actually is part of … we weren’t sure at first if we should really start with a chimpanzee, because chimpanzees in a certain way make us as humans nervous, because we don’t want to be reminded of how close we are to them. That’s why we tend to make this dividing line, this completely phony wall that we put up between us and everything else so strong.
That’s why if you look at some of what was in the newspapers and on TV and so on last week, you see people laughing and saying, “Chimpanzees aren’t human – ha, ha, ha. We’re different. We’re exceptional.” In fact, as you say, we are 98% chimpanzee.
MF: Yes – and they are 98% us, too.
MM: Exactly. The ways they behave are so much like us when you actually study the way they tell lies to each other. They can be every deceptive. They’re quite cunning. They can be really quite badly behaved, quite honestly. Jane Goodall made the point at one point. She said, “I used to think that chimpanzees are like us, only better. Now I understand, they’re just like us.”
BN: Michael, I’m just curious from your perspective, because you were interviewed from different media outlets – what was maybe the best and worst of what you experienced in that process?
MM: Actually, it was with one very silly exception where I think the guy was drunk on some late night talk show, it was actually very good. When anybody who had done any amount of homework on this – and I should let you know what the outcome of this first round of cases are in a moment – but people were very respectful about it, and they understood.
There was one particular analyst on CNN who said, “I started off thinking this was just a lot of typical animal rights nonsense, and then I read the brief and I realized these things are written beautifully. This case is rock solid.”
The more people looked at it, the more they see that this is something that certainly should be taken seriously.
MF: One of the things that I found fascinating is the connection and the legal arguments that go back to the Dred Scott hearings. Can you talk about that a little bit? It may be one of the more controversial aspects, but I think there’s some really rock solid legal arguments that you can use from the Dred Scott times to now, and why they’re relevant.
MM: If I can go back actually a teeny bit further, because the one that we really rely on isn’t Dred Scott, it’s one that is earlier called Somerset vs. Stewart, and this is the case of an African American slave in 1769. He was taken over to London, England, by his owner, Charles Stewart. James Somerset, when he got to London a few months later he escaped. He was recaptured and he was put in chains on a ship on the river Thames that was going to go out to the sugar plantations of Jamaica, and he was going to be sold there on the slave market. On a sugar plantation, your basic lifespan once you got there was approximately two years.
By this time, he had been adopted by some people that designated themselves his godparents, and they were part of the abolitionist movement. They went to court on his behalf and argued essentially exactly the same case that we are arguing. We base our case actually on this Somerset vs. Stewart. They went in front of the great judge Lord Mansfield, and the attorneys laid out the case why Somerset could not be viewed as a piece of property, but that he displayed all of the characteristics the courts normally use to determine that someone is a legal person.
Lord Mansfield asked both sides to try to settle this out of course. He said, “I don’t want to make this decision, because it’s going to be a really big one if I do.” They couldn’t come to terms on this. What the opposition argued was not that Somerset was not just like every other human as it were – this guy was obviously intelligent, self-aware, autonomous. What they argued was that if he was declared a legal person, this would be the beginning of the end of slavery, and it would destroy the European economy, which was so dependent on cotton, sugar, and tobacco.
They couldn’t settle out of court, and Lord Mansfield then wrote this opinion, the judgment, in which he said, “Though the heavens may fall,” – and that was the key thing he said which was then echoed down through history. This was in 1772, before the United States even existed; it was still a colony at that time. He said, “Though the heavens may fall, I declare that slavery is so odious that treating human beings as property is simply something that cannot be tolerated.”
This to me is so fascinating, because as we make the case really what people are most afraid of is not whether chimpanzees are or aren’t, what DNA they have that’s close to us or whatever, but they’re terrified. One of the people who works at the laboratory at Stony Brook University that is doing research with Hercules and Leo, who are two of the chimpanzees that we filed on behalf of, she is absolutely distraught about this. She says, “This is going to bring down the world of science.”
This really isn’t about what’s right, it’s about people’s jobs and their research grants, and whether people are still going to be going to circuses and all this kind of nonsense.
MF: Of course, back when you’re talking about slavery, of course the cotton industry still survived. We still have cotton today. The sky didn’t fall.
MM: Of course.
MF: It was a bunch of hysteria. I’m going to bring back Dred Scott one more time. There was one point that was made that I thought was fascinating. It does prove the case that the courts have been wrong about what is a person and what is not a person before and then had to fix it later. The fact that we don’t necessarily perceive or think of automatically chimpanzees as legal persons doesn’t mean that they aren’t.
MM: Exactly. In this case, this is an argument that to this day has never actually until now been put before a court, so we are in completely new and virgin territory on this, which is doubly interesting, because judges at a lower cost, trial court level, county court, are very reluctant to create new laws and create new precedents, so what happened last week is kind of interesting in those terms. Where this is really going to be fought out is at the appeals court level.
MF: Right. Tell us, what’s the status of the cases as they’ve been introduced now?
MM: Three cases, and they’ve all, as expected, been denied our habeas corpus petitions at the lower court level. What was really most interesting and what we didn’t expect was what the judges would actually say. I could read you what the first judge said. He said this on the record, which is really very unusual. By ‘on the record,’ that means that his view on this is part of what then goes up to the appeals court.
He said, “Your impassioned representations to the court are quite impressive. The court will not entertain the application, will not recognize a chimpanzee as a human or as a person who can seek writ of habeas corpus under Article 70, but I will be available as the judge for any other lawsuit to right any wrongs that are done to this chimpanzee, because I do understand what you’re saying. You make a very strong argument. I cannot agree with your argument only insofar as Article 70 applies to chimpanzees, but good luck with your venture. I’m sorry I can't sign the order, but I hope you continue.”
In other words, the appeals court.
BN: Go ahead!
MF: Wow – that is just outstanding, Michael.
MM: Yes. Another one, the second judge who held a hearing said he did not want to be the first to “make that leap of faith” but knowing that the case will now go on to appeal, he wished the Nonhuman Rights Project good luck.
MM: The third one didn’t actually hold a hearing. He just signed a piece of paper saying this petition is denied. Two out of three got a really strong recommendation that we go on. One of the reasons that we chose to do this in New York is that New York has very strong habeas corpus precedents, and you have an automatic right of appeal, so the appeals court has to hear this.
MF: Wow – that’s outstanding, Michael. If people want to support this effort – I know the legal work is expensive. When you get up to the appeals court, that can get really expensive. If you go past that, it’s going to get even more expensive. It’s really important work. I guarantee you the Nonhuman Rights Project can use your support of that effort. They are at www.nonhumanrightsproject.org.
MM: Right. Or even just www.nonhumanrights.org will get you there easily enough. There’s a donation section there. Yes, basically our situation is we’re almost entirely all volunteer apart from a couple of folks who are working on this completely full time. We can file basically as many suits as we can afford to file. We don’t stop with these. These are just the first in a campaign that will go on across many states for many years to come on behalf of not just chimpanzees but elephants, and certainly we want to do something for the orcas like at Sea World, and the dolphins and the Belugas and all of that.
BN: The sky is not going to fall. I’m clear on that, Michael. The sky will not fall if we say …
MF: That chimps are persons.
BN: But it will potentially have very significant ramifications for other sentient beings that we have cavalierly held in captivity for our own amusement, entertainment, or exploration.
MM: Exactly. It is just the start off. It makes it clear that the legal system does not just apply to humans.
MF: If people want to find Michael Mountain, they can find him at www.earthintransition.org. Thank you so much for your work. Keep us posted, and we’ll look forward to hearing from you each week.
BN: We’ll be following.