Steven Wise leans to the lectern. "I don't see a difference between a chimpanzee," he states unequivocally, "and my 4 1/2-year-old son."
At Politics and Prose bookstore this warm Friday evening last month, it's a coffeehouse-activist audience of about 40 that's versed in animal rights rhetoric. They came to hear Wise make his controversial case for extending legal rights to some animals, the argument he lays out in his new book, "Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights."
Pallid, wearing a dark suit and a loosened tie, Wise looks Establishment. He is not a tree hugger, he is a lawyer. He's a professional at drawing hard lines. Now he is the latest luminary of an animal rights movement better known for starlets posing naked to protest furs than for lawyers arguing science. Some think the case he's taking nationwide may become one of the groundbreaking civil rights battles of the next generation.
In lawyerly fashion, Wise has buttressed his case with science's latest discoveries about animal cognition and behavior, most of it universally accepted, some controversial. If some species of "nonhuman animals" can be shown to be smarter, more aware, more humanlike than previously recognized, they arguably deserve legal rights, he says.
"Certain species are capable of complex emotions, can communicate using language, and have a sense of self," says Wise, "all characteristics that once defined humanity."
Some talking points: Chimps have complex social interactions. They use tools. Research by Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham, among others, has shown that, even in the wild, they demonstrate an idea of the future and remember the past. They can count. And they can communicate in sign language at the level of a 3- or 4-year-old child.
"Chimps have 98.7 percent of DNA in common with humans," says Wise. "Both my son Christopher and your average adult chimpanzee obviously meet any minimum rational standard for entitlement to basic legal rights."
Consider Lucy, a 6-year-old chimpanzee legally kept as a pet and test subject. Smart and personable, Lucy learned American Sign Language. She greeted her human teacher every morning with a big hug and two cups of tea she made herself at the stove.
But acting "almost human" didn't protect Lucy as legal rights might have, says Wise. As often happens when aging chimps outlive their usefulness as study subjects or become hard to handle as pets, her owners sent Lucy to a chimp rehab center in Africa. Poachers shot and skinned her, and cut off her feet and hands as trophies.
Wise, a longtime animal rights lawyer from Needham, Mass., makes similar cases for eight other species who meet the standards of consciousness, some sense of self-awareness and ability to act intentionally: gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, African gray parrots, African elephants, dogs and honeybees.
He goes over more highlights: Gorilla and human DNA are 97.7 percent identical (most mammals' DNA is more than 90 percent comparable to humans). Gorillas use tools, solve problems, imitate, pretend, even use deception to get their way -- all characteristics of the human domain.
Wise visited Project Koko, operated since 1976 by the nonprofit Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, Calif., whose mission is to protect gorillas and explore interspecies communication. There he met 300-pound Koko, a remarkably conversant gorilla whose sign language skills surpass minimum levels for human fluency. Koko knows more than 1,000 signs, uses more than 500 regularly and understands several thousand English words.
On human IQ tests, Koko scores between 70 and 95 -- by human standards, slow but not retarded. She articulates emotions -- a human attribute increasingly shown in nonhuman animals in neurological and zoological research at Oxford and New York universities, among others.
Wise reports this conversation from the day after Koko bit a caretaker, and her trainer asked what she had done.
"Wrong wrong," Koko signed with her large dark fingers.
"What wrong?" her trainer signed back.
"Bite," signed Koko. "Sorry bite scratch."
"Because mad," signed Koko.
Koko signed, "Don't know."
At Zoo Atlanta, Wise met Chantek, an orangutan who signs about 250 words and is tackling grammar. Chantek immediately learned to sign Wise's first name as an S on the forehead. Wise says he used that to trick him:
For an hour, as Chantek played Simon Says with his trainer, he would glance over at his new friend and sign "Steve." After his trainer rewarded him with a grape, Chantek signed "Steve" again, asking that Wise hand him a grape. When Wise reached into the cage, Chantek grabbed his finger and wouldn't let go until scolded.
Anthropologist Lynn Miles, who has worked with Chantek for 24 years, says he not only has emotions but also uses signs to label them. "The latest one he invented himself seems to mean 'annoyed,' " says Miles, of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "But he also has signs for 'hurt,' 'good' and 'bad,' 'cry,' 'happy,' and he even says 'funny' when something's funny."
At Washington's National Zoo, orangutans given mirrors explore parts of their bodies they can't see otherwise, indicating a sense of self. Great apes regularly pass the mirror self-recognition test: A red dot is dabbed on the animal's face; when the subject looks in a mirror, reaching for the dot on its face instead of in the mirror indicates a sense of self.
When Chantek first passed it, he was at the same age as when a human child usually does. He proceeded to groom his teeth in the mirror and put on and adjust sunglasses. "He has some sense about how he wants to look to other people and to himself," says Miles.
Dolphins are a different animal altogether. But more than three decades of research, mostly at the University of Hawaii's Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory and its Dolphin Institute affiliate, have shown that dolphins solve problems, cooperate with humans in complex ways, distinguish sense from nonsense and imitate behavior. In social interactions, says Wise, they show a conceptual sense of self. And they can learn "gestural language," a dolphinized sign language they understand at a word per second.
The African elephant appears to be a cognitive step down from dolphins, says Wise, but still demonstrates highly evolved emotions, memory and learning ability, according to studies by noted elephant researcher Cynthia Moss at Amboseli National Park in Kenya.
Much less is known about dogs, complains Wise. "There's 60 million people out there who tell me their dog is like Einstein," he says, "but as far as work done to figure out what dogs think about, there's hardly any."
For those species, like dogs, that seem anecdotally to be advanced yet haven't been scientifically anointed, Wise gives the benefit of the doubt. Alex, the famed African gray parrot at MIT's Media Lab, has learned to identify shapes, colors and materials by name. He solves complex problems, uses symbols and is a deft imitator -- a trait some scientists link to self-awareness. He reasons, comprehends and calculates at the level of a 4- or 5-year-old human, the MIT scientists say. He also enunciates about 100 words -- and is learning to spell.
Wise tells the story about how Alex got his way one day when visitors were ignoring him. "Wanna nut," he spoke up. Nobody responded. Alex repeated emphatically, "Wanna nut!" No one paid attention. So Alex finally goes, "Wanna nut! Nnnn -- uhhhh -- tttt!" And everybody paid attention.
More Than 'Things' Jane Goodall, the world's best-known primate researcher, calls Wise's first book -- "Rattling the Cage," published two years ago -- "the animals' Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence and Universal Declaration of Rights all in one." His second, then, must be something like the Bill of Rights.
In an e-mail from London, Goodall says Wise's books are "profoundly important because they are written in a way that any person can easily understand why these magnificent animals deserve the basic protections of the law."
What Wise is calling for is basic "rights of bodily integrity and bodily liberty." This means the covered species would no longer be viewed by the law as "things," says Wise, who equates legal attitudes toward animals today with human enslavement in the antebellum South.
Legal rights would deliver animals from sanctioned abuse, such as when animals are held captive and used -- and sometimes abused -- for entertainment purposes at zoos and circuses. Medical labs could no longer test on any species granted rights.
Rights would offer animals more protection than current anti-cruelty laws, which are weak and unevenly enforced, Wise says.
He came to this conclusion after 25 years of courtroom experience, defending nearly 150 "dangerous dogs" on death row and trying to stop state-sponsored deer hunts and the U.S. Navy from using dolphins for suicide duty. He began representing animals in court in the late '70s after a chance reading of Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation," the bible of the modern animal rights movement. Before that, he says, "I had not realized how many animals we really brutalized."
By 1980, Wise started visiting slaughterhouses and biomedical labs. He became a vegetarian, stopped wearing leather. He redirected his Boston law practice from personal injury to animal rights, and since has been joined by his law partner and wife, Debra Slater-Wise. From 1984 to 1994 he served as president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. He has taught animal rights law at Harvard Law School, Vermont Law School and John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
"The early work I did in the 1980s," says Wise, "when I'd go into a courtroom and make an argument on behalf of a dog, people would just start laughing."
He observed that neither ethics nor compassion influenced judges in animal cases, thus the need for legal rights. Rather than argue for blanket coverage, he began to search for the species that have "practical autonomy." This would answer detractors "worried that any nonhuman animal could get legal rights," he says. "It's a 'slippery slope,' they say, and God knows where that ends."
He figured honeybees would fit neatly into the no-rights category. But combing through vast research, Wise discovered that honeybees "have the second most complex natural language after human beings." A sense of self? Benefit of the doubt. They're his bottom rung of animals deserving rights.
Besides, autonomy is just one factor, he says; what about the mainstream principle of equality? "You have an anencephalic child born with no brain and we give that child a whole panoply of rights," he says. "And you have animals like Alex who have complex and bright minds and they're treated like chairs."
The Other Side
Support for legal standing for animals appears strong among the public. A survey last year conducted by the Zogby International polling company for the Chimpanzee Collaboratory, a group working to stop abuse of great apes, asked 1,217 adults: "How do you think chimpanzees should be treated under the United States legal system?" Twenty percent said chimpanzees should be "treated like property such as a car or furniture." But 51 percent said "similar to children with a guardian to look out for their interests" and 9 percent said "same as adults with all the same legal rights."
The legal profession is paying attention. When Wise started teaching animal rights law at Vermont Law School in 1990, it was the first course of its kind, he says. Today, there are more than 25. "All sorts of law professors have come out of the animal rights closet," says Wise. He drops two prominent names -- civil rights and celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, whose new book includes a chapter on animal rights, and Harvard Law School's constitutional law authority Laurence Tribe, who is increasingly outspoken on animal rights.
"The ultimate point should be to recognize that many nonhuman species are more than things," says Tribe, ". . . and have interests that deserve to be taken into account in much the way that human interests do -- in much the same way, but not quite."
Of course, Wise's viewpoint still faces stiff opposition. His most vocal detractor in legal circles is Richard Posner, a U.S. appellate judge and a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. Calling instead for more vigorous enforcement of existing laws, Posner says: "It just is not feasible to equate animals to humans. There are too many differences. Their needs and our relations to them are too different from the needs and our relations to human groups to warrant actually granting animals rights."
Tibor Machan, a philosopher and professor of business ethics at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., who has written about the issue, argues that the criterion for rights is morality. "Such rights would only arise if animals developed into moral agents, which they haven't," he says. "Notice no one is expecting animals to be kind, compassionate, considerate of their own victims, stop being carnivorous if they are, and so forth. That's because the only moral animals are human beings."
The standard reproach from medical researchers: Virtually every major medical advance of the past century has come from animal testing. Says Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, in Washington: "It is pretty easy to sit around a table and intellectualize about his stuff and talk about what you'd be willing to give up -- until you or somebody you care about is hit with some terrible disease."
After fielding questions at Politics and Prose, Wise has drawn another line -- this one of people waiting for his autograph. For many in the audience, Wise was preaching to the choir. There was grad student Ryan Shapiro, a vegan volunteer at the D.C. group Compassion Over Killing, a D.C.-based animal rights group, who says Wise is "laying the building blocks that will abolish the enslaving of animals for human purposes."
And there was Kitty Block, a U.S. Humane Society animal rights lawyer, who says she likes Wise's navigation of the slippery slope: "Every time you ever try to work on any animal issue, people say, 'Then I can't swat a fly?' "
But there was also Rockville teacher Peter Markham, who had raised a skeptical question during the Q and A: "Should an adult chicken have more rights than a human embryo?"
After hedging -- "I haven't studied chickens" -- Wise says that if the chicken has more "appreciation for life" than the human embryo, then yes, the chicken should have more rights.
After hearing Wise out, Markham's more convinced: "I mean, he doesn't want to give earthworms rights. I agree, you got to make a start somewhere."
The gorilla Koko, celebrating her 30th birthday with Penny Patterson, scores between 70 and 95 on human IQ tests and understands thousands of words.Among the species author Steven Wise says are deserving of basic legal rights are, clockwise from above, the bonobo, the African gray parrot and the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. All, he says, meet standards of consciousness, some sense of self-awareness and an ability to act intentionally.