A few months into 2017 and it is clear that the way we view animals and the environment is shifting.
In March itself, three rivers have for the first time been granted legal rights.
Since the 1870s, the Whanganui Iwi tribespeople of New Zealand have fought hard for the 290km long Whanganui river to be afforded legal personhood.
Being recognised as a living entity means the river has obtained its own identity. The river now has all the relevant rights, duties and responsibilities under the law, but most importantly, the protections too. Part of the decision called for two guardians that would act on behalf of the river in ensuring no harm is done to it, one from the tribe and one from the crown
The tribe considers the country’s third largest river as its ancestor, treating it as a living entity rather than asserting ownership over it. Therefore, granting the river legal personhood reflects the idea that landmarks, not limited to rivers, exist with mankind rather than for.
Meanwhile, in the northern hemisphere lies the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. Reaching lengths of 2,525kms and 1,376 kms, respectively, along north India, these rivers hold immense spiritual significance. However unlike the Whanganui river, their spiritual connection was not the sole purpose for granting or even seeking their rights.
In fact, the greater priority was to clean up and reduce the vast pollution of the rivers, namely, the 1.5 billion litres of sewage and 500 million litres of industrial waste that is pumped into the river each day. Now recognised as legal persons (as opposed to mere “things”), the rivers are protected and conserved.
But the pursuit of legal personhood isn’t just limited to rivers. American Attorney and founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), Steven Wise, has spent more than two decades trying to gain rights for animals.
The NhRP is now “on the cusp of changing the legal relationship between nonhuman animals and humans.” In 2013, Wise and his associates filed a petition on behalf of Tommy, a 20 year old chimpanzee confined to a small shed. Since then, other petitions have been filed on behalf of Kiko, a chimpanzee formerly used in television ads and Hercules and Leo, who were being kept at a scientific research lab.
The petitions filed are those for writs of Habeas Corpus which requires incarcerated people to be brought before the court in order to assess the merits of their detention. Wise’s work is seeking to extend the scope of this writ to include nonhuman animals on the basis that they too deserve the right to bodily liberty.
If successful, this litigation could fundamentally alter the way animals are seen under the law. Once chimpanzees are granted legal personhood, this concept could also possibly be extended to other animals with high cognitive abilities, such as elephants, orca and dolphins.
Granting legal rights to those outside the realm of humans reflects the growing understanding that nature and all of its inhabitants deserve to be protected. Of all the reforms that have been made in the past relating to our environment, the recognition of nonhuman rights could be considered the most progressive – paving the way for animals and their precious habitats to be exploited less and respected more.