The Case for Animal Personhood: Will ‘Nonhuman’ Persons Make Us Better Humans?


Is ‘personhood’ the same as being human?

A New York state judge will soon decide whether chimpanzees have the right to “legal personhood.” If victorious, a 26-year-old chimp named Tommy could pave the way for more animals to have similar rights and protections.

In some parts of the world, dolphins are already considered “nonhuman persons.” What we know about such animals is that they are not only sentient, but also emotional and intelligent creatures with unique personalities, preferences and decision-making skills.

Representing Tommy is attorney Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project. He is arguing for Tommy to be moved from a solitary cage to a sanctuary in Florida that mirrors the animal’s natural habitat.

“He’s detained against his will,”  Steven M. Wise, the president of the rights group, who argued the case, told the New York Times, adding that no chimpanzee would choose to live “in the conditions in which he’s living.”

“He can understand the past, he can anticipate the future,” Mr. Wise said, “and he suffers as much in solitary confinement as a human being.”

Humans have long had confounding relationships with the animal kingdom. On one hand, we allow the torture and slaughter of billions of animals each year to serve as a source of food–much of which has gone from being simple commodity items like eggs or milk, into unnecessary processed junk foods like bacon-wrapped pizza crusts. These are animals, mind you (pigs, chickens and cows, shrimp and lobsters), which many people approach with a lack of respect—even find “disgusting” in their pre-sandwich, nugget or cured, smoked bacony form—yet have no problem eating once they’ve been rendered unidentifiable.

On the other hand, we snuggle up in bed with dogs, cats, rabbits, lizards, even birds—animals often treated as legitimate family members when pigs, chickens or cows may be just as intelligent, curious and emotional as our pets, if not more so. Then there are the zoos, marine parks and circuses, where animals exist in unnaturally cruel conditions solely for our entertainment. There are animals we choose to wear, animals whose eyes we pour deodorant, perfume and shampoo into so that we can smell like our favorite celebrities without looking like the animals we torture to do so.

So it’s no surprise that the conversation over personhood for nonhumans is rife with controversy. Even as the vegan diet is earning more mainstream recognition both for health and ethical reasons, many people still hold a strong sense of entitlement and dominion over the animal kingdom. I’d argue that it’s our own fear and disquiet that calls us to seek distraction in exerting power over others. We’ve done this to humans we’ve seen as “lesser” countless times over. And it’s never amounted to a benefit to society. It has only led to war.

Arguing that nonhuman personhood would make human personhood difficult to maintain, Richard Cupp, a professor at Pepperdine Law School, told the Japan Times: “We could see over time some of our most vulnerable humans losing out in a rights struggle if they’re in direct competition with some particularly intelligent nonhuman animals,” he said. “We could have the personhood paradigm weakened by extending it to animals.”

But what if it had the opposite effect? After all, it’s not like recognizing nonhuman personhood means we have to suddenly provide clothing, Park Avenue apartments and salaried jobs to dolphins. We just have to stop capturing, torturing and slaughtering them is all.

Aside from all the rights we intentionally take away from animals, we are now also inadvertently, ignorantly, and irresponsibly disrupting animal species the world over. In the past half-century, wild animal populations have declined by 50 percent. There’s not a single black rhinoceros living in the wild anymore. If that isn’t just a little bit heartbreaking, look at what climate change is doing: altering the composition of sea ice so drastically that it recently displaced some 35,000 walruses in Alaska. Animals who live “in the wild” are now essentially homeless.

Do we really want to live in a world where there are no more walruses or Kodiak bears in Alaska? No more lions in the Serengeti, no more orangutans in Borneo, no more moose, wolves, elk in Colorado? Just billions of meaty livestock animals we find repulsive while alive suffering in dark, dank factory farms until we turn them into Spam?

The question isn’t whether or not a chimpanzee or a dolphin or a pig is a person, the question is whether we have the right to tell them they’re not; whether we get to decide who gets to experience life on their own terms.

Despite our transgressions and our egregious mistreatment of animals over the course of our existence, it is possible to will our own evolution and to embrace the fundamental rights of our fellow earthlings. For those of you who can’t imagine giving up meat, eggs, fish or dairy from your diet, that doesn’t mean you have to. But it might mean that your choices can no longer include cheap, processed factory farm animal products (which aren’t doing your personal health any favors either, by the way). It might mean that the only fur coats and clothing in circulation are vintage pieces—relics of our outgrown naiveté. It might mean that if you want to see a killer whale make a splash that you take a trip to Puget Sound. If you want to see an elephant standing on one leg or a tiger running in circles, you save up for a trip to Africa or Asia.

These aren’t sacrifices, or even sorry substitutions. These are adventures of a lifetime, one a zoo, a circus or SeaWorld can never come close to replicating, despite the marketing gimmicks they’ll use to tell you otherwise. Animal captivity—no matter for what purpose—all share one common denominator: that of making some human person(s) money. But it’s all coming at a cost our conscience can no longer afford. One we will never be able to explain to our grandchildren without the guilt and shame it deserves.

Compassion isn’t a weakness; it’s a strength that separates humans from many of the other nonhuman persons on earth. Personhood for all creatures inherently exists, it’s just a question of whether or not humans are finally willing to accept and acknowledge it. Once and for all.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Image: timparkinson

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.