Renowned animal rights pioneer Steven M. Wise passed away on February 15th after a long illness. He was 73 years old.

An innovative scholar and groundbreaking expert on animal law, Wise founded and served as president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), the only nonprofit organization in the US dedicated solely to establishing legal rights for nonhuman animals. As the NhRP’s lead attorney, he filed historic lawsuits demanding the right to liberty of captive chimpanzees and elephants, achieving widely recognized legal firsts for his clients.

Most notably, under Wise’s leadership the NhRP filed a habeas corpus petition on behalf of Happy, an elephant held alone in captivity at the Bronx Zoo. Happy’s case, which historian Jill Lepore has called “the most important animal-rights case of the 21st-century,” reached the New York Court of Appeals in 2022. The Court of Appeals then became the highest court of an English-speaking jurisdiction to hear arguments calling for a legal right for an animal. Although the Court ultimately denied Happy’s petition, two judges wrote historic dissents refuting the idea that only humans can have rights. Under Wise’s leadership, the NhRP also helped develop and pass the first animal rights law in the country in 2023–an ordinance that protects elephants’ right to liberty.

Wise said he decided to become a lawyer after developing a deep commitment to social justice as a result of his involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement while an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary. He graduated from Boston University Law School in 1976 and began his legal career as a criminal defense lawyer. Several years later, Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation inspired Wise to become an animal protection lawyer.

From 1985 to 1995, Wise was president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. As Wise told The New York Times Magazine, his litigation work during this time led him to conclude that the rightlessness of animals was the fundamental barrier to humans vindicating animals’ interests. This is because, under animal welfare laws, lawyers must make the case for how a human has been harmed by the animal’s treatment or situation; as Wise elaborated in his writings and talks, legal injuries to animals do not matter in court because animals are unjustly considered legal “things” with no rights, legally equivalent to inanimate objects, their intrinsic interests essentially invisible to judges.

In 1995, Wise launched the Nonhuman Rights Project to address this core issue facing all animals and their advocates. After more than a decade of preparation, the NhRP filed first-of-their-kind lawsuits in 2013, demanding rights for four captive chimpanzees in New York State. A year and a half later, two of the NhRP’s clients became the first animals in legal history to have habeas corpus hearings to determine the lawfulness of their imprisonment.

Wise was also a leading force in the development of animal law as a distinct academic curriculum, teaching the first-ever animal law course offered at Harvard University in 2000. He remained committed to educating the next generation of animal rights lawyers throughout his career, teaching animal rights jurisprudence at law schools around the world, including Stanford Law School, the University of Miami Law School, St. Thomas University Law School, John Marshall Law School, Lewis and Clark Law School, Vermont Law School, Tel Aviv University, and the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Wise is the author of four books: Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals (2000); Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights (2002); Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery (2005); and An American Trilogy: Death, Slavery, and Dominion Along the Banks of the Cape Fear River (2009). He is the co-author, with Samuel Machado and Cynthia Sousa Machado, of a graphic novel about Happy’s case, Thing: Inside the Struggle for Animal Personhood (2023).

Over the course of his career, Wise published hundreds of animal rights articles and delivered thousands of lectures to audiences worldwide. He was also featured regularly on a wide variety of television and radio shows globally, including The Colbert Report, TED Radio Hour, NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Fresh Air with Terry Gross, NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, Fox News, Court TV, MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, and numerous BBC radio shows.

Wise was the subject of a 2016 Emmy-nominated documentary by acclaimed filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker, Unlocking the Cage. The film followed Wise and his colleagues at the NhRP as they pursued their first cases.

Wise is survived by his wife, Gail Price-Wise, his children, Roma Augusta and her husband Michael Augusta, Siena Wise, Christopher Wise, his step-daughter, Mariana Price, his brother, Robert Wise, and his canine companion Yogi. 

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It's really sad to hear about Steven Wise passing away. His work was a game-changer in how we see animals and their rights. Founding the Nonhuman Rights Project was a huge step forward, especially with those groundbreaking cases for chimps and elephants. Even though Happy the elephant's case didn't turn out as hoped, it sparked a massive conversation and got people thinking about animals in a way they hadn't before.

Wise's story is super inspiring. It's a big loss, but what he started isn't stopping anytime soon.

Really devastating news. I had a pleasure to meet Steven. His dedication and warmth was deeply inspiring to me, and his down to earth character made him fun to be around. You will be missed. :(

Executive summary: Animal rights pioneer Steven Wise passed away at 73. He founded the Nonhuman Rights Project and filed groundbreaking lawsuits seeking rights for animals.

Key points

  1. Wise was a leader in animal law and rights. He founded the Nonhuman Rights Project to establish legal rights for animals. 
  2. He filed innovative lawsuits on behalf of captive chimpanzees and elephants, achieving notable firsts.
  3. Most famously, he petitioned for habeas corpus for Happy the elephant, reaching the NY Court of Appeals. 
  4. Though the court denied the petition, two judges issued historic dissents challenging animal rightlessness.
  5. Under Wise's leadership, the first US animal rights law passed in 2023 protecting elephants' liberty.
  6. He is survived by family and leaves a monumental legacy in animal law and ethics.



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