Steven Wise has been waiting more than 30 years to give chimpanzees their day in court. A lawyer who specializes in animal protection, Wise is widely credited as a pioneer in the animal rights arena: he’s taught classes on the subject at schools including Harvard and John Marshall Law School, has written four books and countless journal articles, and is the former president of the influential Animal Legal Defense Fund.

But it’s only in recent months that Wise’s work has made national headlines. In early December, the Nonhuman Rights Project — a group that Wise founded and now runs — filed three landmark lawsuits on behalf of captive chimpanzees living in New York state. With ample scientific evidence on their side, Wise and his colleagues are hoping to prove that because chimpanzees demonstrate complex cognitive abilities, they should be recognized as legal persons with the right to live free from confinement.

It’s a provocative idea, and one with significant support from renowned primatologists — many of whom submitted affidavits to bolster the lawsuits. But Wise’s legal maneuvers, which he plans to accelerate in the coming years, are also wildly controversial: though legal protections for animals have improved drastically in recent decades, the idea of assigning personhood to certain species is still enough to make plenty of judges, scientists, and even animal-rights advocates more than a little uncomfortable. Wise talked to The Verge about the premise of the lawsuits, what it means for an animal to become a legal person, and why critics of his pursuit have it all wrong.

I don’t come across many lawyers who practice animal rights law — let alone anyone litigating to obtain legal personhood status for chimpanzees. How did you get into the field?

There was actually one specific moment that started it all for me. It was 1980, I was a young lawyer just getting into the field, and I read Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. At the time, I had a very idealistic vision of using law to pursue justice towards some greater good — when I read that book and realized how far behind we were with regards to justice for animals, I decided that the best way to do what I wanted was to work for their rights.

Back then, there was essentially nothing at all in this field. There were no university courses, very little literature or law reviews on the subject of animal rights. Very few lawyers were even practicing in the area. I helped to found a group called the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and our job was basically to figure how to litigate on behalf of nonhuman animals — entities that were, in the eyes of the law, essentially invisible. Nobody knew how to go about doing that. So from the beginning, it was a very significant challenge. It wasn’t until 2005 that I decided I was done researching, I was done writing and thinking and strategizing, and I was ready to litigate all those ideas we’d been thinking about for so many years.

In reading stories and commentary about these three lawsuits in New York state, it strikes me that a lot of people are confused — and I think a little scared, too — about the idea of “legal personhood” for a chimpanzee. What does that designation actually mean, and what would it offer chimpanzees?

"Legal person is not a synonym for human."

Legal person is not a synonym for human being. It’s a legal term designating that an entity should have one or more legal rights — the right to bodily liberty is one example. Among humans, certainly up until the Civil War in the US, many human beings were not legal persons as far as the law was concerned. They were property. On the flip side, plenty of nonhumans are also legal persons. Corporations, for example; or in India, some holy books have been granted personhood.

So the term doesn’t, and never has, meant human beings. But while we’ve granted legal personhood to many things, nonhuman animals have always been things, or property, existing at the will of and for the benefit of human persons. What our project seeks is to pursue a strategic litigation campaign to convince the legal system that at least some animals have a right to bodily liberty — the right to not be imprisoned, to move around freely.

There’s an argument to be made that these cases could create a slippery slope without a clear end point. If legal personhood is granted to chimpanzees, then what about other animals? What about additional rights for these animals beyond bodily liberty? Should we be wearing fur? Eating animals or animal products? How do you draw a line here?

At least for right now, our litigation is aimed at establishing limited rights for those animals who, from a clear scientific perspective, display a complex set of cognitive abilities. We would argue that animals including chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins are autonomous, self-determining beings. They have the ability to choose how to live their lives. They have deep emotional experiences. They can remember the past and anticipate the future. As a result, they have a clear right to bodily liberty.

"We will be litigating on behalf of many animals in the years to come."

Right now we’re focused on these chimpanzees, but we will be litigating on behalf of many animals in the years to come. Where that might go, I don’t know yet, but we’ll start by arguing to judges that these animals have the right to bodily liberty, and from there, I anticipate arguing with them about what kinds of other rights these animals might be entitled to have. I’m a vegan myself, but we have staff members at the NHRP who eat meat. We don’t make rules about that stuff. We’re focused on legal personhood, on certain entities deserving certain rights.

Not everyone agrees with the work you’re doing. Some scientists have argued that granting legal personhood to chimps will do a huge disservice to biomedical research, and some conservationists have argued that granting bodily freedom to animals means increasing their risk of extinction. How do you respond to those criticisms?

I had someone tell me a year ago that I was a threat to the valuable use of chimpanzees in biomedical research, and I said to them, “The greatest risk of the use of chimpanzees isn’t me, it’s the director of the National Institutes of Health.” That agency, quite rightly, has decided that we can’t continue to conduct research using chimpanzees for moral reasons. They aren’t needed, and even if they were needed, that still wouldn’t justify using them. If need is the key criteria, then why not use humans against their will for biomedical research? Well we don’t, because it’s immoral. The same goes for chimpanzees — there is a deep immorality in that practice. They are not our subservient slaves.

"If need is the key criteria, then why not use humans against their will for biomedical research?"

I’m not sure how to respond to the argument about extinction, because that’s not what we’re trying to do in our litigation — we’re not planning to place these animals back in the wild. Of course, we would like to have them there, but we recognize that they wouldn’t survive. Instead, we’re collaborating with sanctuaries to place the animals there, where they can live autonomously, as chimpanzees, with other chimpanzees. That’s the moral thing to do, and it should be the legal thing to do. Poaching and habitat losses in Africa have nothing to do with caged chimpanzees in New York state.

I understand that your lawsuits were rejected by all three courts where they were filed earlier in December. Where do you go from here? And looking further ahead, if this is successful, how do you see these legal proceedings changing animal rights in the decades ahead? What do you hope to see?

In Suffolk County, the judge flat-out refused to hold a hearing: he wrote a brief that basically said “a chimp is not a legal person” and that was it. In the two other counties, we actually had full hearings — and it was clear, and you can read the trial transcripts, that the judges sympathized with what we were doing and they were impressed with the information we’d put together. But we didn’t expect to succeed out of the gate: trial judges aren’t going to be the guys breaking ground with these decisions. So the cases will move to appellate court, and we look forward to arguing them there. We have 250 pages of information, we have affidavits from nine primatologists, and we hope the appellate judges take a close look at what they have to say.

"I think that people are seeing animals, and thinking of animals, quite differently than they did a few decades ago."

I’ll leave the really long-term thinking to the philosophers, because my goal right now is to represent these animals one by one, case by case. Judges will need to grapple with the rules for chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants, and many other animals for decades to come. But as far as where we’re headed, I can tell you two things. The first is that we aren’t going anywhere. This is a long-term campaign, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we had five cases going next year. The only limiting factor is money — as the money comes in, the cases go out.

The second is that we’re in a period where important factors are very fluid. The science is fluid, it’s changing all the time — what we know about animals has exploded. We couldn’t have filed these lawsuits even five years ago. And the more we learn, the more we’re understanding how cognitively complex these animals really are. Public opinion is changing too: when I taught my first animal law class, it was one of two in the country, and now there are over 300. I think that people are seeing animals, and thinking of animals, quite differently than they did a few decades ago. I don’t know where these factors lead, but I do know that where we are right now is grossly immoral and unjust. And that needs to change.