Friday, 15 May 2015

Steven Wise Rattling the Cage in Australia

Steven Wise is touring Australia as part of the 2015 Voiceless Animal Law lecture series.

Wise has been writing about and more importantly, advocating on behalf of nonhuman animals, for many years. Recently he founded the Nonhuman Rights Project which aims to establish legal personhood for (some) nonhuman animals.

To that end Wise has had a significant victory of late, with Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe asking the State University of New York at Stony Brook to show cause as to why it should be permitted to own, restrain and use Hercules and Leo; two chimpanzees who are part of a University mobility study.

Steven Wise’s law lecture tour raises the obvious question; what might this landmark case mean for Australia?  

Wise’s litigation is an attempt to establish legal personhood for chimpanzees. Legal personhood is good. In fact it is great. Legal personhood is closely equated with rights, and rights are closely equated with strong interest protection. At present nonhuman animals are property items at law. Legal personhood would change all that.

Most commentators agree that Wise is unlikely to succeed in this case and Hercules and Leo are unlikely to get their freedom. If Wise is successful I expect the decision will be appealed immediately. If Wise does win, and the ruling withstands challenge, it will still only have local jurisdictional application in a strict legal sense.

However, that does not mean that the case is not important and it does not mean that its impact will not be felt in Australia.

The use of animals in research is the most secretive of all animal uses. As I document in my book Animals, Equality and Democracy, animal research is heavily regulated, but there is no mechanism by which the community is permitted to engage in a dialogue about animal research. Experiments are kept secret; deliberations by animal ethics committees are kept secret; and in many (if not most) cases the results are not conclusive and are never published. Suffice to say, where animals have an adverse reaction to an experiment they are quietly killed and the community is none the wiser.  This secrecy means that the community is not permitted to reflect on the values, ethics, and process associated with animal research.

The level of secrecy is such that many Australians are unaware that Australia has three primate breeding facilities or that an estimated 313 macaque or marmoset monkeys were used in research in 2011, in Victoria alone.

If nothing else, Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Animal Project are helping us start a much needed, and long overdue, conversation. As Wise noted on the ABC’s Lateline, the State University of New York at Stony Brook has not so much as acknowledged that they are in possession of the two chimpanzees at the heart of his case. Nor have they been held to account by the community. All that is about to change. Soon Hercules and Leo will have their day in court.

Any type of ventilation of what goes on behind closed laboratory doors is important. The State University of New York at Stony Brook will be forced to show cause. Perhaps they can do so successfully. But what is important is precisely that they do have to do it. They have to make the case. It is no longer silently assumed that animals are ours to experiment on or that one set of animal researchers can approve the animal research of another set of animal researchers.

Asking the question and having the debate is what matters. And what is discovered once that discussion is had will have an impact on attitudes and behaviors around the world, including in Australia, where we do regularly harm nonhuman primates in the name of science.  

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