STEVEN WISE HAS RECENTLY STUDIED African gray parrots, a pair of Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins, a group of elephant families, a singing orangutan, a gorilla, and a group of chimpanzees, in some cases even conducting what might loosely be described as interviews with them. Though he would seem to have the inside track on animal brains, he's less interested in whether they can create a compelling dialogue than in the implications of animal cognition and animal liberty. Having introduced the subject of animal rights law in his 2000 book "Rattling the Cage," Needham-based Wise continues his inquiry into basic legal rights for animals with "Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights."
Wise, who became the first person to teach an animal rights course at Harvard University, is a lawyer who defends animals in court. His clients, for the most part, are dogs and other companion animals that are in danger of being euthanized for antisocial behavior. In one case, he tried unsuccessfully to keep the New England Aquarium from giving a dolphin to the Navy. As an advocate for animal rights in court, however, Wise is most passionately concerned with higher primates, elephants, and parrots, and their right to certain basic liberties such as freedom from being caged or held in captivity. His critics range from veterinarians to "those with a vested interest in continuing to exploit nonhuman animals," as he puts it.
In "Drawing the Line," he says, he is advocating the acceptance of a legal status for nonhuman animals that allows them to be treated as something more than property. Although he is against the use of animals for biomedical research, Wise points out that the first steps toward the animal rights he wants to see are modest. "The world would not change if African elephants or large primates are given rights because they are not used in great numbers or have substantial economic value. It could happen without any serious disturbance."
Wise, who runs the Boston-based Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights, talked by phone while on book tour in California.
Q. Is it fair to say that the purpose of your book is to use scientific knowledge to establish legal parameters for deciding which animals should have legal rights?
A. Yes. What I'm trying to do is make rational arguments backed up by scientific facts, because scientific facts are persuasive to the lay person and to judges. Many animal rights people are accused of being overly emotional. I've tried to be long on the facts.
Q. Can you talk about what you call "practical autonomy" and what it means for animals?
A. One of the major values and principles in Western law that are sources for legal rights is the idea of liberty. Liberty rights is the right to be entitled because of how [individuals] are put together, what qualities they have, because they are similar to someone who has those rights. The idea of practical autonomy is a liberty right. Anyone who has the ability to desire, to act intentionally, someone who has a sense of self, they would be entitled to basic liberty rights. When you have a right, you are no longer a thing but a person. At least you have the basic right to bodily integrity. You can't torture them, you can't eat them, you can't use them for biomedical research.
Q. You're saying not that all animals deserve these rights, but that certain animals do? You believe that for the majority of animals we don't know enough to make a judgment?
A. I have devised four categories for nonhuman animals. According to this, Category 1 is great apes and bottle-nosed dolphins, who should be entitled to basic liberty rights. Category 3 is most animals. We can't make a rational determination for them. Category 2 is where many animals fall, from honeybees to African gray parrots and dogs. These nonhuman animals are those we know a lot about. They don't have practical autonomy, but they have complex cognitive ability. [Category 4 comprises animals that lack "sufficient autonomy for basic liberty rights."] The question becomes, where do you drive the law? The precautionary principle from environmental law says we just don't know what the consequences of an action are or we haven't begun searching for it. The consequences could be so dire that we have restrictions to prevent it. I argue that the violation of bodily integrity is as serious as you can get.
Q. You're still waiting for a major legal decision that will set a precedent for animal rights law. What do you think it will resemble?
A. This book and "Rattling the Cage" are both aimed at laying the foundation that will end in a legal precedent. Judges are conservative. You can't make these arguments cold. You need to spend years bringing subjects into the legal forum. The first case is more likely to be a chimpanzee held in a biomedical research institute and some sort of lethal experiment is about to be done on her, or held in a small cage in a roadside zoo. Or a dolphin. Great apes are likely to be the first nonhuman animals to get rights.
Q. What would the world look like if certain animals had liberty rights?
A. They could not be eaten or displayed in a zoo or used in biomedical research. You would have to treat them the same way you would treat a child.
Q. You must get a lot of opposition on the subject of animals used in research. What do you say to people who say there is no other safe way to test drugs?
A. My response is that it's completely irrelevant. The way to cure human diseases is to use humans. They wouldn't go down to Beacon Street and snatch 100 people, or if they did, the cure for heart disease would be a lot faster.
Q. You use descriptions of 18th- and 19th-century slavery that talk about African-Americans as animals to demonstrate that very strongly held beliefs can change. Do you think that 100 years from now, we'll look back at this time period and think how barbaric it is that we used animals for experiments, just as we once used other human beings as slaves?
A. I think it will end in my lifetime at least, the slavery for some nonhuman animals, and the paradigm will change. Once the first animals are given the first rights, the question will shift from "Are you a human being?" to "What kind of animal are you?"
It will be a more sophisticated moral inquiry than just arbitrarily drawing the line.