Animal Law

Steven M. Wise, legal force for animal rights, dies at 73

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Attorney Steven M. Wise

Lawyer and legal scholar Steven M. Wise signs copies of his 2002 book, “Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights,” at the D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Steven M. Wise, a legal warrior for animal rights who argued that chimpanzees, elephants, whales and other highly intelligent creatures have a fundamental right to liberty, no less than the humans who often confined or killed them, died Feb. 15 at his home in Coral Springs, Florida. He was 73.

His wife, Gail Price-Wise, said the cause was glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer. Mr. Wise had been diagnosed with the disease almost three years ago, she said, and had continued to work with his Washington-based nonprofit, the Nonhuman Rights Project, through three brain surgeries and two rounds of chemotherapy.

An impassioned lawyer with wire-rimmed glasses and wispy salt-and-pepper hair, Mr. Wise practiced animal rights law beginning in the early 1980s, galvanized by Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s landmark book “Animal Liberation.” He defended scores of rowdy dogs, all slated to be put down because of barking or biting; argued against state-sponsored deer hunts; and advocated for a dolphin named Rainbow, who was supposed to be moved from Boston’s New England Aquarium to a Navy facility for military training before Mr. Wise filed a lawsuit and rallied public opinion against the transfer.

Early in his career, he recalled, colleagues and courtroom observers mocked the arguments he delivered on behalf of a captive African gray parrot or a short-tempered St. Bernard. But as attitudes toward animals softened in recent years, Mr. Wise came to embody a potentially paradigm-shifting approach to animal law.

Through the Nonhuman Rights Project, which he founded in 1995, he campaigned to secure legal rights for animals, seeking to transform a court system that had long considered animals scarcely different from inanimate objects.

“Steve was enormously innovative in helping a generation of lawyers see that, despite the ways in which nonhuman animals differ from humans, we have more than enough in common to remove the blinders that have too long obscured the capabilities and moral claims that sentient beings other than human persons share with the rest of us,” said Laurence H. Tribe, a legal scholar and Harvard University professor emeritus.

In an email, Tribe added that Mr. Wise combined “compassion and empathy” with a creative approach to the law, especially through cases in which he sought to extend the legal principle of habeas corpus—which people can use to contest their illegal confinement—to elephants and other animals that sometimes face squalid living conditions in captivity.

Mr. Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project, or NhRP, focused on three groups of animal clients, drawing on cognitive and behavioral research while arguing that each group is self-aware, autonomous and cognitively sophisticated, thus deserving of fundamental rights: elephants, great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans) and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises).

Although he sought to anchor his arguments in research, citing the work of scientists including British primatologist Jane Goodall, an NhRP board member, Mr. Wise also drew parallels between animal captivity, enslavement and institutional misogyny. Courts once failed to recognize the rights of Black people and women; animals, he argued, were similarly overlooked.

“It’s a form of speciesism—the idea that the group you are part of is superior in some qualitatively dramatic way to every other group,” he told Newsday in 2000. “It’s something we humans have played out with each other. Europeans vs. Africans. White vs. Black. Men vs. women. Adults vs. children. Nazis vs. Jews. Long histories of different groups of people believing that other groups of people were not worthy of rights, were not worthy of respect, were not worthy of dignity, were not worthy of consideration.”

Critics questioned his legal tactics as well as his broader aims, arguing that there were fundamental differences between humans and animals, and that his animal clients were better served through efforts to strengthen existing legislation.

But Mr. Wise noted that there was no law or statute preventing animals from being held in captivity altogether. Convinced that a rights-based approach was the only way forward, he turned to habeas corpus petitions, concluding that they offered a potential remedy for a “legal person,” not necessarily a human person. He cited myriad examples in which the law had recognized objects, institutions and even geographical features as “legal persons,” from a river in New Zealand to a collection of Hindu idols, and began working to reclassify animals as such.

Habeas corpus also offered him a way to see his cases tried in state court, the home of common law, instead of in federal court, where judges often consider themselves bound by the original intent of laws and statutes.

Mr. Wise put his legal strategy to the test in December 2013, filing habeas corpus petitions on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York. The first, Tommy, was being held in what Mr. Wise and the NhRP described as “a small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed” at a used-trailer lot near Gloversville, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. The others were Kiko, in Niagara Falls, and Leo and Hercules, who were being kept at Stony Brook University on Long Island for a research study.

The petitions made national news. One by one, they also failed in court.

Mr. Wise and his colleagues pressed ahead, filing a habeas corpus case in 2018 on behalf of Happy, an elephant at the Bronx Zoo. Seeking to get her moved from the zoo to an elephant sanctuary, he and the organization enlisted a host of legal scholars to write briefs in support of the case, including Tribe and the University of Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum.

This time, the case reached the state’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals. The judges ruled against Mr. Wise and his colleagues, 5-2, in June 2022, finding that habeas corpus was not intended to secure the rights of “nonhuman animals.”

Still, Mr. Wise found hope in the dissenting opinions, which seemed to suggest his argument was gaining ground. In one, Judge Rowan D. Wilson said the court had a duty “to recognize Happy’s right to petition for her liberty not just because she is a wild animal who is not meant to be caged and displayed, but because the rights we confer on others define who we are as a society.”

Mr. Wise’s optimism seemed vindicated in September, when the small city of Ojai, Calif., passed what the NhRP calls the first U.S. legislation “to recognize the legal right of a nonhuman animal”: an ordinance, developed with and supported by the NhRP, that protects elephants’ right to “bodily liberty,” including through “freedom from forced confinement.”

The older of two sons, Steven Mark Wise was born in Baltimore on Dec. 19, 1950, and grew up in Aberdeen, Md. His father worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground, a weapons testing and development center for the Army, and his mother was a homemaker.

Mr. Wise traced his interest in animal welfare back to childhood, when he and his family went to a farmers market once a month. One of the vendors sold chickens housed in small cages that horrified Mr. Wise, who wrote a letter to a state representative to complain about the birds’ living conditions.

“The representative wrote back,” the New Yorker reported in a 2023 feature about Mr. Wise’s legal crusade, “but nothing changed for the chickens.”

At the College of William & Mary in Virginia, Mr. Wise studied chemistry, deciding that he might want to become a doctor, and got involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1972, found that his grades weren’t good enough for medical school and decided that given his interest in antiwar activism and social justice, law might be a better career path anyway. In 1976, he graduated from Boston University’s law school.

Mr. Wise became an incisive and oft-quoted spokesman for animal law. He served as president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund from 1985 to 1995; taught one of the country’s first animal law courses at Vermont Law School in 1990; lectured at universities including Harvard and Stanford; and was featured in a 2016 documentary, “Unlocking the Cage,” directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker.

He also wrote books including “Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals” (2000), which Goodall praised as “the animals’ Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, and Universal Declaration of Human Rights all in one.”

His marriages to Mary Lou Masterpole, a social worker, and Debra Slater, his longtime legal partner, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife of 20 years, NhRP board member Gail Price-Wise, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Roma Augusta; two children from his second, Siena and Christopher Wise; a stepdaughter, Mariana Price; and a brother.

Mr. Wise said he was undaunted by his defeats in the courtroom, and even came to expect them early in his career. “If we lose, we keep doing it again and again, until we find a judge who doesn’t feel that the way is closed off,” he told the New York Times in 2014. “Then our job is to produce the facts that will allow that judge to make that leap of faith. And when it happens, it will be huge. I wouldn’t be spending my life on this otherwise.”

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