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The nutcase animal-rights lawyer who wants chimps granted the legal status of humans

He may claim to only want these rights for sentient creatures, but remember how the EU was supposed just to be a trading bloc...

25 June 2016

9:00 AM

25 June 2016

9:00 AM

The other evening I was driving back in heavy rain from my pilates class when I noticed something rather upsetting in the gated road that goes through our estate. I stopped and got out of the car for a closer look. Yes, as I feared, it was a dead duck. Some bastard had squished her flat.

What made me more upset still was that I could see her mate — a mallard drake — swimming forlornly in the ditch next to the road. I loved those ducks like Tony Soprano used to love his ducks. Especially the stupid way they waddled blithely across your path, forcing you to slow down and always making you smile whatever mood you were in. But clearly the tosser who did this was in too much of a hurry: either a van driver or someone in a 4 x 4, I guessed. The road’s so rutted and bumpy that no one in a normal car could get up sufficient speed.

Anyway, the reason I’m telling you this is that we all like animal stories; also to show you what a deeply sensitive, caring person I am; but mainly, probably, the better to be able to give a proper slagging to the hour and a half’s worth of bilge I had to endure this week about some nutcase of an animal-rights lawyer who wants chimps first, then every other species thereafter, to be granted the legal status of humans.


It was called Unlocking the Cage (BBC4, Wednesday) and the Guardian loved it — so you can tell already that it wasn’t a kind of Louis Theroux-style pisstake designed to mock the world’s wilder lunacies. No. It was made by the hugely respected film-makers Chris Hegedus and the near-legendary 90-year-old documentarist D.A. Pennebaker (who famously recorded the last Ziggy Stardust concert; also Don’t Look Back with Bob Dylan) and to me it seemed far too sympathetic to the man’s bizarro cause.

His name is Steven M. Wise, founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, and his mission — ever since he read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) — has been to make us ‘consider the personhood of non-human animals’. Well, actually I think most of us do that already — anthropomorphisation being a natural human tendency. But being a lawyer and an activist, Wise wants more than that, unfortunately. He wants the statute books to make his warped sentiment legally binding.

You can see where things will end up if he gets his way. No more foie gras. No more crispy duck. Who knows: one day they might even use it to come between us and our God-given right to hunt foxes. To which his supporters would no doubt say, ‘Oh, c’mon. He’s only talking about sentient creatures like apes and whales and dolphins…’ And to which I’d say, ‘Yeah. And remember how the European Union was supposed just to be a trading bloc…?’

If you sense a pent-up frustration here, by the way, it’s because I feel unable to write about the thing I really want to write about, which is all that EU referendum TV. Yes, it’s old hat for you now — something you’d rather forget, especially if the result has gone as I think it’s going to go. But here I am at the time of writing, uncertain as to the outcome, having spent the past fortnight watching little else but Marr, Neil, Peston, Islam et al grilling Cameron, Osborne, Gove, Johnson and Farage, and I’d like to memorialise some of the finer moments. Like the one on Question Time on Sunday when David Dimbleby, in response to Cameron’s ‘There’s no silver bullet on this issue’, said, ‘If you left the EU there would be a silver bullet because you’d control immigration.’ He’s a frightful rotter that Dimbleby and I do have my suspicions about his soundness. But sometimes it takes a Flashman to catch a Flashman. Rarely have I seen slippery Dave so undone.

But that animal documentary: it followed Wise through the courts as he tried to persuade various, mostly unimpressed judges that habeas corpus should be applied to chimpanzees too. Though a New York judge threw out his latest claim in 2015, she did add in her sympathetic ruling that this was only ‘for now’ and that in the future chimps might well come to be seen as ‘people’.

Which is what worries me. In his early campaign days, Wise recalled, ‘People laughed at me and barked when I entered a courtroom.’ Now he teaches animal-rights law at Harvard to classes of students who take him seriously. I’ve seen this same generation at the Oxford Union nodding earnestly, enthusiastically to the dreary, misanthropic sermonising of Peter Singer. The mistake we saner grown-ups make is to imagine the kids will see this nonsense for the drivel it is, without our having to spell out the detail. Not so. If they buy into all that cisgender and safe-space crap, they’ll certainly swallow this. They’re like the Sparrows in Game of Thrones. Where’s the ghoul of Gregor Clegane when you need him?


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