Steven M. Wise, pathbreaking attorney for animal rights, dies at 73

The way “nonhuman animals were tormented in biomedical research” was also news to Mr. Wise, who told a friend: “I don’t know how to go back to not knowing this.”

So he didn’t. Mr. Wise, who spent the rest of his life arguing in courts, articles, and books that chimpanzees, elephants, whales, and other highly intelligent creatures have a fundamental right to liberty, no less than the humans who often confined or killed them, died Feb. 15 in his Coral Springs, Fla., home. He was 73.

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His wife, Gail Price-Wise, told The Washington Post that the cause was glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer. He was diagnosed almost three years ago, she said, and continued to work with his Washington-based nonprofit, the Nonhuman Rights Project, through three brain surgeries and two rounds of chemotherapy.

Mr. Wise was often mocked in his early years practicing animal rights law. At bar association meetings, mooing greeted some presentations about his specialty.

“When I came into the courtroom, they would laugh at me,” he once said. “They would bark at me.”

Undeterred, he defended rowdy dogs condemned to be euthanized because of barking or biting. He also argued against state-sponsored deer hunts and advocated on behalf of a dolphin who was supposed to be moved from the New England Aquarium in the early 1990s to a Navy facility for military training, until Mr. Wise filed a lawsuit and rallied public opinion against the transfer.

As attitudes toward animals softened in recent years, Mr. Wise came to embody a potentially paradigm-shifting approach to animal law.

Through the Nonhuman Rights Project, which he founded in 1995, he campaigned to secure legal rights for animals, seeking to transform a court system that had long considered animals scarcely different from inanimate objects.

“Steve was enormously innovative in helping a generation of lawyers see that, despite the ways in which nonhuman animals differ from humans, we have more than enough in common to remove the blinders that have too long obscured the capabilities and moral claims that sentient beings other than human persons share with the rest of us,” Laurence H. Tribe, a Harvard Law School professor emeritus, told the Post.

Tribe added that Mr. Wise combined “compassion and empathy” with a creative approach to the law, especially through cases in which he sought to extend the legal principle of habeas corpus — which people can use to contest their illegal confinement — to elephants and other animals that sometimes face squalid living conditions in captivity.

Mr. Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project, or NhRP, focused on three groups of animal clients, drawing on cognitive and behavioral research while arguing that each group is self-aware, autonomous, and cognitively sophisticated, thus deserving of fundamental rights: elephants, great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans) and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises).

Although he sought to anchor his arguments in research, citing the work of scientists including British primatologist Jane Goodall, an NhRP board member, Mr. Wise also drew parallels between animal captivity, enslavement, and institutional misogyny. Courts once failed to recognize the rights of Black people and women; animals, he argued, were similarly overlooked.

“It’s a form of speciesism – the idea that the group you are part of is superior in some qualitatively dramatic way to every other group,” he told the Long Island, N.Y., newspaper Newsday in 2000. “It’s something we humans have played out with each other. Europeans vs. Africans. White vs. Black. Men vs. women. Adults vs. children. Nazis vs. Jews. Long histories of different groups of people believing that other groups of people were not worthy of rights, were not worthy of respect, were not worthy of dignity, were not worthy of consideration.”

Critics questioned his legal tactics as well as his broader aims, arguing that there were fundamental differences between humans and animals, and that his animal clients were better served through efforts to strengthen existing legislation.

But Mr. Wise noted that there was no law or statute preventing animals from being held in captivity altogether. Convinced that a rights-based approach was the only way forward, he turned to habeas corpus petitions, concluding that they offered a potential remedy for a “legal person,” not necessarily a human person.

“It will require us to convince a panel of judges to change hundreds of years of law,” he told the Globe in 2005.

Habeas corpus also offered him a way to see his cases tried in state court, the home of common law, instead of in federal court, where judges often consider themselves bound by the original intent of laws and statutes.

Mr. Wise put his legal strategy to the test in December 2013, filing habeas corpus petitions on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York. The petitions made national news. They also, one by one, failed in court.

He and his colleagues pressed ahead, filing a habeas corpus case in 2018 on behalf of Happy, an elephant at the Bronx Zoo. Seeking to get her moved from the zoo to an elephant sanctuary, he and the organization enlisted a host of legal scholars to write briefs in support of the case, including Tribe and the University of Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum.

This time, the case reached the state’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals. The judges ruled against Mr. Wise and his colleagues, 5-2, in June 2022, finding that habeas corpus was not intended to secure the rights of “nonhuman animals.”

Still, Mr. Wise found hope in the dissenting opinions, which seemed to suggest his argument was gaining ground. In one, Judge Rowan D. Wilson said the court had a duty “to recognize Happy’s right to petition for her liberty not just because she is a wild animal who is not meant to be caged and displayed, but because the rights we confer on others define who we are as a society.”

Mr. Wise’s optimism seemed vindicated in September, when the small city of Ojai, Calif., passed what the NhRP calls the first US legislation “to recognize the legal right of a nonhuman animal” — an ordinance, developed with and supported by the NhRP, that protects elephants’ right to “bodily liberty,” including through “freedom from forced confinement.”

Mr. Wise, working in his home office in 2000, with his cat Alice. John Blanding/Globe staff

The older of two sons, Steven Mark Wise was born in Baltimore on Dec. 19, 1950, and grew up in Aberdeen, Md. His father worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground, a weapons testing and development center for the Army, and his mother was a homemaker.

As a boy, he went with his family to a farmers market each month and was appalled at the treatment of chickens housed in small cages. He wrote a letter to a state representative to complain, and later became a vegetarian.

“I try to respect nonhuman animals,” he told The New York Times in 2002. “I don’t eat them. I don’t wear them. I try to avoid being involved in the abuse of them.”

At the College of William & Mary in Virginia, Mr. Wise studied chemistry, deciding that he might want to become a doctor, and got involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1972, and his interest in antiwar activism and social justice prompted him to attend BU’s law school, from which he graduated in 1976.

After turning to animal rights law, he served as president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund from 1985 to 1995; taught one of the country’s first animal law courses at Vermont Law School in 1990; lectured at universities including Harvard and Stanford; and was featured in “Unlocking the Cage,” a 2016 documentary directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker.

Mr. Wise (right), with filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus to promote the film “Unlocking the Cage” during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.Matt Sayles/Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

He also wrote books including “Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals” (2000), which Goodall praised as “the animals’ Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, and Universal Declaration of Human Rights all in one.”

His marriages to Mary Lou Masterpole, a social worker, and Debra Slater, his longtime legal partner, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife of 20 years, NhRP board member Gail Price-Wise, his survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Roma Augusta; two children from his second, Siena and Christopher Wise; a stepdaughter, Mariana Price; and a brother.

“I’m not practicing animal law because I have to be,” he told the Globe in 1990, noting that he could have been more prosperous in other specialties. “I’m doing it because I want to.”

Material from The Washington Post and The New York Times was used in this report, to which Globe staff writer Bryan Marquard contributed.

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