Lawyers: Animals Should Be Able to Sue

Moe's owners think they know what's best for him. So does the city of West Covina, Calif., so does the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and so does the director of a local sanctuary.

The problem is, even though he's 36 years old, Moe the chimp can't speak for himself.

That's partly why the custody battle between Moe's owners and the city of West Covina has continued for nearly four years. It's also why a growing cadre of prominent lawyers is lobbying to broaden the way we define all animals and animal rights in the U.S. court system.

"African-Americans and women and handicapped people and homosexuals — they're all able to talk," said Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago who advocates the appointment of legal guardians for animals to protect their welfare. "That made all the difference. If animals could speak, the law would look a lot different."

A Troubled Chimp History

In the latest settlement, reached last week, both sides agreed that Moe would be moved from his chain-link cage at the Wildlife Waystation Sanctuary, where he enjoys the occasional company of other chimps, to an air-conditioned building on industrial property in neighboring Baldwin Park, Calif. But that now seems unlikely to happen, since the city of Baldwin Park is not interested in hosting the chimp.

The agreement was the latest effort to end litigation that began in 1998 when the city of West Covina removed Moe from the home of St. James and LaDonna Davis after the animal allegedly bit two people. The Davises sued to have Moe returned. And now no one, it seems, is happy about the settlement.

Baldwin Park city officials say they don't want the chimp and sanctuary director Martine Colette believes Moe would be better off in the company of other chimps.

"He's a chimp, regardless of what people say," says Colette. "Chimps are chimps, they're never going to be anything else."

But Steven Wise argues that's not true — at least not legally.

When a Chimp Is a ‘Person’

"Any animal — at least one with a sense of self — should become eligible for legal rights," says Wise, a lecturer of animal law at Vermont Law School and Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and author of the new book "Drawing the Line."

Rather than being regarded as property, as animals now are, chimpanzees and other higher mammals should be represented directly in courts in the same way that abused children are appointed legal guardians, Wise argues.

Wise has been leading the cause to grant higher mammals the right to have suits filed in their names. He says his strategy is to begin the battle for chimpanzees and eventually win similar rights for other animals.

Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University, points out that so-called legal persons status is now granted on behalf of corporations and ships and buildings — so why not animals?

"I can't see why chimpanzees and dolphins, to name just two extremely intelligent examples, should be deemed any less worthy of such classification," says Tribe, who argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of then-Vice President Al Gore during disputes over the outcome of the 2000 elections.

Tribe adds, however, that granting such status would not suggest any animal is the legal equal of humans.

"There are rights … and there are rights," he says.

Wise is now drafting a declaration of rights for apes, which he hopes international leaders will sign by the year 2010.

Flooding the Courts

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