On December 2 the Nonhuman Rights Project gained much media attention by filing suit in Fulton County Court in the state of New York on behalf of Tommy, a chimpanzee, who is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used trailer lot in Gloversville.
The lawsuit of the Nonhuman Rights-lawyers is based on a case that was fought in England in 1772 on behalf of an American slave, James Somerset, who was taken to London by his owner, escaped, was recaptured and set to be resold at the slave markets of Jamaica. A group of abolitionist attorneys filed a writ of habeas corpus on Somerset’s behalf, challenging Somerset’s qualification as a ‘legal thing’.
The case went before the Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield. In what became one of the most important trials in Anglo-American history, Lord Mansfield ruled that Somerset was not a piece of property, but instead a legal person, and he set him free.
Fear of death
The case illustrates the growing interest in the ‘personhood beyond the human’. One of the speakers at the recent Yale conference, Annette Lanjouw, argues that evidence continues to show that individuals of many other species have rich mental, emotional and social lives. In a recently published book edited by Lanjouw, The Politics of Species, key barriers to a broader nonhuman take on human rights are identified.
One of these barriers is the human fear of death, at least this is the view of academics following the ideas of Ernest Becker. Speaker Lori Marino (Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy) argues that “Our species is largely motivated by the denial of death. Becker’s proposition predicts that when we humans are reminded of our personal mortality we tend to deny our biological nature – our animality – because we connect animality with mortality.”
Jan van Hoof (professor ethology & socio-ecology) subscribes to this argument around saying that “The speciesist postulate of a fundamental difference between Man and the animals, at least in some major religious and cultural traditions, may well find its chief raison d’être in that it comfortably soothes possible emotional concerns about our dealings with animals. Seeing others as different makes it easier to deny them rights and to exploit and enslave them.”