Steven M. Wise

Steven M. Wise (born 1952) is an American legal scholar who specializes in animal protection issues, primatology, and animal intelligence. He teaches animal rights law at Harvard Law School, Vermont Law School, John Marshall Law School, Lewis & Clark Law School, and Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. He is a former president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund and founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project.[1] The Yale Law Journal has called him "one of the pistons of the animal rights movement."[2]

Steven M. Wise
BornMay 1952 (age 70)
EducationCollege of William & Mary (BA)
Boston University (JD)
Known forAnimal rights advocacy, abolitionism

Wise is the author of An American Trilogy (2009), which tells the story of how a piece of land in Tar Heel, North Carolina, was first the home of Native Americans until they were driven into near-extinction, then a slave plantation, and finally the site of factory hog farms and the world's largest slaughterhouse. His book, Though the Heavens May Fall (2005), recounts the 1772 trial in England of James Somersett, a black man rescued from a ship heading for the West Indies slave markets, which gave impetus to the movement to abolish slavery in Britain and the United States (see Somersett's Case). He also wrote Drawing the Line (2002), which describes the relative intelligence of animals and human beings, and Rattling the Cage (2000), in which he argues that certain basic legal rights should be extended to chimpanzees and bonobos.[1]

The documentary Unlocking the Cage (2016) follows Wise in parts of his struggle for chimpanzees.


Wise received his undergraduate education in chemistry at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Wise first became interested in politics through his involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement while at William & Mary.[3] Wise studied law at Boston University and was awarded his J.D. there in 1976, then became a personal injury lawyer. He was inspired to move into the area of animal rights after reading Peter Singer's Animal Liberation (1975),[4] often referred to as "the bible of the animal liberation movement". A practicing animal protection attorney, he is president of the nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project, where he directs its Nonhuman Rights Project, the purpose of which is to obtain basic common law rights for at least some nonhuman animals. He lives in Coral Springs, Florida, with his children Chris and Siena.

Animal personhood

Wise's position on animal rights is that some animals, particularly primates, meet the criteria of legal personhood, and should therefore be awarded certain rights and protections. His criteria for personhood are that the animal must be able to desire things, to act in an intentional manner to acquire those things, and must have a sense of self — must know that he or she exists. Wise argues that chimpanzees, bonobos, elephants, parrots, dolphins, orangutans, and gorillas meet these criteria.[4]

Wise argues that these animals should have legal personhood bestowed upon them to protect them from "serious infringements upon their bodily integrity and bodily liberty." Without personhood in law, he writes, one is "invisible to civil law" and "might as well be dead."[5]

He writes in "The Problem with Being a Thing" in Rattling the Cage:

For four thousand years, a thick and impenetrable legal wall has separated all human from all nonhuman animals. On one side, even the most trivial interests of a single species — ours — are jealously guarded. We have assigned ourselves, alone among the million animal species, the status of "legal persons." On the other side of that wall lies the legal refuse of an entire kingdom, not just chimpanzees and bonobos but also gorillas, orangutans, and monkeys, dogs, elephants, and dolphins. They are treated as "legal things." Their most basic and fundamental interests — their pains, their lives, their freedoms — are intentionally ignored, often maliciously trampled, and routinely abused. Ancient philosophers claimed that all nonhuman animals had been designed and placed on this earth just for human beings. Ancient jurists declared that law had been created just for human beings. Although philosophy and science have long since recanted, the law has not.[6]

In Rattling the Cage, Wise offers examples of primates who he believes have suffered unjustifiably. He writes about Jerom, a chimpanzee who lived alone in a small cage in the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, with no access to sunlight, after being infected with one strain of HIV when he was three, another at the age of four, and a third at the age of five, before dying in 1996 at the age of 14.

Wise also tells the story of Lucy Temerlin, a six-year-old chimpanzee who learned American Sign Language from Roger Fouts, the primatologist, and was raised by Maurice K. Temerlin and Temerlin Mcclain. Fouts would arrive at Lucy's home at 8:30 every morning, when Lucy would greet him with a hug, go to the stove, take the kettle, fill it with water from the sink, find two cups and tea bags from the cupboard, and brew and serve the tea. When she was 12, the Temerlins were no longer able to care for her. She was sent to a chimpanzee rehabilitation center in Senegal, then flown to Gambia, where she was shot and skinned by a poacher, and her feet and hands hacked off for sale as trophies.[5]


Wise has been profiled in Who's Who in the World as well as other editions of Who's Who since 2005. He is a frequent guest on a wide variety of television and radio news and talk shows throughout Europe, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and North America.

Wise speaks frequently on topics related to animal rights law at law schools, legal conferences, and universities throughout North and South America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Africa, including Harvard Law School, Monash University Law School, and the University of Stellenbosch among others.

He has taught animal rights law and jurisprudence at the Harvard, Vermont, Lewis and Clark, University of Miami, St. Thomas, and John Marshall Law Schools.



  • Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals, Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA, 2000 ISBN 0738200654 (called a "seminal work" by the Boston Globe (March 3, 2005); Time magazine observed "[o]nce the domain of activists, animal law has steadily gained respect among law schools and legal scholars since 2000, when … Rattling the Cage provided an academic argument for granting legal rights to animals" (December 13, 2004)) .
  • Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights, Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, MA, 2002. ISBN 0738203408
  • Though the Heavens May Fall, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005 (cover review for Sunday New York Times Book Review, January 9, 2005). ISBN 0738206954
  • An American Trilogy: Death, Slavery, and Dominion Along the Banks of the Cape Fear River, Da Capo Press, 2009. ISBN 9780306814754 (a review[7])

See also


  1. "About the author" Archived 2006-01-09 at the Wayback Machine, Steven Wise's home page.
  2. "Emeritus Advisory Council". AHM Website. Animal History Museum. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
  3. Siebert, Charles (April 23, 2014). "Should a Chimp Be Able to Sue Its Owner?". New York Times. Retrieved November 9, 2014.
  4. Gale, "Biography".
  5. Sunstein, Cass R. "The Chimps' Day in Court", New York Times Book Review, February 20, 2000.
  6. Wise, Steven. "The Problem with Being a Thing", Chapter One of Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals.
  7. "Book Review: An American Trilogy: Death, Slavery, and Dominion on the Banks of the Cape Fear River". Michigan State University College of Law. Retrieved 30 November 2015.
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