This Lawyer Is a True Legal Eagle

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Stephen Wise is a 49-year-old animal rights lawyer -- or "animal rights wacko," if you join in the hilarity of Rush Limbaugh, who used to introduce items about people like Wise by playing "Born Free," with ricocheting gunfire and wild animal squawks in the background. Limbaugh should get a kick out of Wise's new book, called "Rattling the Cage," which Jane Goodall, in the preface, declares to be the "animals' Magna Carta."

I am agnostic about animal rights, leaning toward an attitude of common decency (don't torture them, for God's sake) but avoiding ideology. I drove out to see Wise the other day at his home in a suburb west of Boston. It turned out to be the day Wise began work as a lecturer on animal rights at Harvard Law School.

On arrival I got a look at the animal life in the Wise household: a friendly tortoise-shell cat, Alice; Marbury Madison, the ears-akimbo German shepherd/Rhodesian ridgeback mix who looks like a cringing, neurotic mess; and the 26-month-old Wise twins, Christopher and Siena, holy terrors known in the family as "the soldiers of entropy."

Wise has spent 20 years standing up in court for deer, cats, bald eagles, dolphins, gray parrots, assorted primates and other beleaguered species. It is a profession that Wise, who has a gift for comedy, himself finds amusing. In his study hangs a favorite cartoon, of a dog raising his right paw to take the oath in court, and the caption: "Rover v. Wade."

But Wise is serious about the work and, the more you think about it, reasonable. "Rattling the Cage" is by turns eloquent, funny and pedantically legalistic, dense with the sometimes bizarre case law of humans and animals. Wise explores the legal basis for granting certain common law protections and rights (not all, of course) to certain nonhuman animals -- only a few, really, notably the remarkably intelligent, accomplished and endangered chimpanzees.

Wise hopes to coax what he calls a paradigm shift in people's understanding of the place of humans and animals in nature. If it is proved that a certain nonhuman animal has a conscious mind, with faculties of self-awareness, language, memory, emotional bonds and social skills, is not the animal entitled at least to legal protection against imprisonment, torture, vivisection and other horrors regularly visited on creatures that, legally speaking, have only the status of things?

The danger of ridicule runs high in Wise's business; the public hates lawyers, anyway. Wise wants to divest mankind of some of its metaphysical self-importance -- the absolute dominion over nature granted by Genesis and by the work of Aristotle, both of which set up the Great Chain of Being, a universal hierarchy in which preeminent man may use all subordinate creation however he pleases, for everything from food to biomedical research.

Wise argues the world, for purposes of the law, as a Darwinian continuum, in which humans should exercise a seemly self-effacement -- considering, among other things, that "our DNA and that of chimpanzees is more than 98.3 percent identical." The world is populated by thousands of species, ranging from humans to insects. "I don't argue that the great majority of animals should have legal rights," Wise says -- only those entitled to them by reason of mental powers and self-awareness. It seems to be all right to boil lobsters, by the way, since they have no brain cortex or its equivalent. Wise's argument seems to denigrate the divinity of mankind, and perhaps of all creation -- an unnecessary public relations error, I would argue, and perhaps a massive missing of the central point: a holiness and beauty in the world that makes stewardship the only civilized behavior. "But I am a lawyer," Wise tells me, "not a poet or theologian."

In any case, there are a lot more fur coats walking up and down Fifth Avenue now than there were 10 years ago, and I'd say the world is a long way from a paradigm shift.