To Him, Animals Are (Legal) Persons Too

Kevin Schneider, executive director of the Non-Human Rights Project, a civil liberties organization focused on the legal rights of animals, sits in his living room in Brooklyn, New York, on Jan. 28, 2020. He and his adopted dog, Tripp, sit under the poster for 'Unlocking the Cage,' an HBO documentary that featured his organization.

Source Photographs by Ariana McLaughlin for OZY

Why you should care

Animals are property. But should they be?

Kevin Schneider serves as an elephant’s lawyer. Her name is Happy, and in 2006 she made history as the first elephant to pass a crucial intelligence test: She can recognize herself in a mirror. Despite her name, she was dubbed “the Bronx Zoo’s loneliest elephant” by The New York Times because she lives in isolation there, away from the zoo’s other elephants, who injured and killed Happy’s companion pachyderm in 2002. Nevertheless, elephants are social creatures, and Schneider — along with the organization where he serves as executive director, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) — wants her moved to a sanctuary. The case was dismissed by the Bronx Supreme Court on Feb. 20, with the judge saying Happy is “not a person” but admitting that the NhRP’s arguments were persuasive and that she “should be treated with respect and dignity, and … may be entitled to liberty.” The NhRP says it will appeal the case but called the judge’s words “powerful.”

Happy - credit Gigi Glendinning

The New York Times dubbed Happy “the Bronx Zoo’s loneliest elephant” because she lives there in isolation.

It’s all about small steps. The NhRP identifies itself as the only civil rights organization that focuses solely on fighting for the legal rights of animals, and if you’re a chimpanzee or an elephant, they might be able to take your case. Schneider, 33, began as a volunteer with the organization. After five years, he became its executive director, running the show under the auspices of founder and president Steven Wise.

Raised in the Boston area, Schneider started going vegetarian in high school, giving up milk and beef for health reasons and then experiencing a full-blown conversion after seeing a slaughterhouse video. He went to the public library and took out every book he could find about animal rights — many of which were written by Wise, already a prominent legal activist. “For the first time I saw that there were folks out there using the law … to make big changes in how we relate to animals,” Schneider says. He reached out to the organization and became a volunteer, balancing his law school coursework with “whatever they asked [him] to do.” After five years unpaid, the executive director called to offer him her job, which he’s now been in for 4 1/2 years.

The fact that we only present cases on behalf of two species, chimpanzees and elephants, drives some people crazy.

Kevin Schneider

When he first started telling people about his work with NhRP, Schneider says, the response was either blank stares or mocking. Even now people get confused by the concept of the personhood of animals. He’s not arguing that animals are conceptually people, but that they can be personified legally, that they have the capacity for rights. When Wise began working on the project in earnest in 1985 — before Schneider was born — Wise says he predicted it would take about 30 years before the first cases came up. His prediction was on the money. But Wise’s initial idea hasn’t wavered: When it comes to corporations, ships, even pieces of land, he says, “The only way that any entity is ever protected is if they’re a person.”


The organization straddles a difficult line in the animal rights community. “The fact that we only present cases on behalf of two species, chimpanzees and elephants, drives some people crazy,” Schneider says. “They say, ‘Why are you so conservative?’ Well, we think there’s a lot of value in that, especially when you’re trying to do something so radical.”

That political balancing act isn’t easy, but Schneider is no average activist. He’s known for being able to empathize with people who don’t agree and talk skeptics into his position.

Schneider is “a very likable guy,” says Justin Marceau, a law professor at the University of Denver who met Schneider when he was a law student, “and that has a very humanizing effect on the movement. There’s a reputation of animal rights people of being grumps, but he’s very much a people person.” Outside of his activism, Schneider spends time running, drawing and hanging out with friends.

“If you don’t have a life,” Schneider says, “you’re not gonna last. You’re gonna burn out.”

Current laws about animals largely focus on animal welfare — they don’t question whether an animal is a thing, just how you can ethically treat that thing. So the NhRP’s mission is radical in that sense, and it focuses on elephants and chimpanzees because they’re animals that have been scientifically proven to have the capacity for certain types of thinking: memory, the ability to plan or individual desires. The organization doesn’t talk about the food industry — firstly, because science doesn’t back up the idea that cows or chickens have autonomy in the same way elephants do, but also because most people (and most judges) eat meat. Science isn’t yet able to prove that kind of intelligence and autonomy in dogs or cats, Schneider says. And even if a dog does have legal rights, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a pet — Schneider himself owns a three-legged pit bull named Tripp — because companion animals by and large bond with and want to be near their owners, he says.


But the gradual changes in values that the NhRP hopes to kick-start could potentially lead to a sea change for all animals, not just the clever ones. And those changes might not get rolling in the United States: The organization is working on getting animals in Argentina and Colombia their rights, little by little. Once those precedents are created, Schneider says, they can take on new life and have influence beyond borders. Another route is legislative: If animal rights organizations like the NhRP can influence legislators to create rights for animals, the fight in the courts will be that much easier.

“No animals in our legal world have any rights whatsoever. They’re categorically things,” Schneider says. “If a judge isn’t willing to question that for a chimpanzee or an elephant, what hope do we have for a cow, a pig, a chicken?”

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