On its face, the quest undertaken by Steven Wise is a farce: to gain legal standing for animals.

By definition, animals are not people, and thus do not have legal standing in any court of law. But Wise is hardly on some quixotic quest. He’s serious about finding a judge somewhere he can convince to grant standing for a plaintiff to exercise what he calls “nonhuman rights.” In other words, legal rights for an animal.

As crazy as that may seem, his idea is getting traction, as witnessed by the publicity accorded his Nonhuman Rights Project in a recent HBO documentary titled, “Unlocking the Cage,” which accords Wise the same sort of status as the 19th century abolitionists, or the 20th century suffragettes.

Prior to that, The New York Times posted a video piece titled “Animals are People, Too” that was practically a paid promotion for Wise’s campaign. Done in the urgent style of a movie trailer for some high-powered courtroom drama, the video quotes Wise talking to eager young law students saying that he’s “laying the groundwork for the lawsuits to take on the idea whether a nonhuman animal has to be a legal ‘thing,’ or whether or not it’s possible to be a legal ‘person.’ ”

(He’s also quoted as offering a ridiculous pseudo-stat: “For every beat of my heart, in the United States alone 160 animals are killed.” One assumes he’s referring to livestock — I guess — but if one counts birds, fish, mollusks, insects and invertebrates, it’s probably closer to 160 thousand every second. Which, if such a statistic were included in a legal brief to support his planned lawsuit, would be irrelevant.)

Some 30 years after Wise launched his movement, many people are now taking him and his legal enterprise seriously.

And so should you.

Rights vs. Responsibilities

For starters, Wise has shrewdly pretended that his crusade is very limited in scope: He claims he only wants to secure the “right to liberty,” ie, freedom from captivity, for three species: elephants, chimps and dolphins.

It’s easy to see why he chose those three animals. From a practical standpoint, there are incorporated entities associated with each species that can be sued for damages, namely: zoos, medical research labs and amusement parks, respectively.

And lawyers only do pro bono work on the side. To push a fundamental re-write of 240 years of case law through the court system, there has to be a way to collect some compensation to fund that effort.

Second, Wise has a clever reply to the common sense reaction both lawyers and laypeople typically offer: If animals have rights, then don’t they also have responsibilities? How do you enforce that in the courts?

His response uses the analogy of children. “They’re not held responsible for their actions,” his typical argument goes, “but they still have rights.”

It’s doubtful that a court would buy that reasoning, equating children and animals, although there’s no shortage of judges who’d like to go down in legal history as much as Wise likely does.

If Wise ever were to succeed in his quest, however, some immediate problems would quickly result –  ones that he doesn’t talk about.

Consider the basis of his argument: His selected species deserve “personhood” because, as it’s summarized on his website, “Based on the best scientific findings on genetics, intelligence, emotions and social lives of these animals, they are self-aware, autonomous beings.”

If a court were to accept that premise, then certainly the precedence doesn’t stop at elephants, chimps and dolphins. What about whales? They’re considered among the most intelligent animals. What about other marine mammals? Wouldn’t seals, otters, walruses and narwhals also qualify? What about manatees? They’re considered by scientists to have a wide range of sounds used in communication, to be curious about their environment and to engage in social interaction. And guess what manatees’ nearest biological ancestor is: the elephant.

And that’s only the marine environment.

If an elephant is judged to be worthy of legal rights, the door that Wise wants to kick open would turn into an animal highway worthy of Noah’s Ark. If the standard for acquisition of personhood is “as smart as an elephant,” it’s pretty hard to imagine that dozens of other animals wouldn’t also pass that bar.

Once dogs and cats are granted personhood — and can you imagine the tsunami of litigation that would ensue on behalf of more than 120 million household pets every time one of them was punished by its owner? — the next wave of class-action suits would involve cattle and pigs. And if the end game is “freedom and liberty” for all nonhuman “persons,” then the entire livestock industry is suddenly in jeopardy.

Now, from everything I’ve read and seen, Wise isn’t some vegan activist whose hidden agenda is the abolition of animal agriculture. He seems to focus primarily on the confinement issues affecting his three chosen species. If he succeeds in his quest however, it’s guaranteed that the lawsuits to follow would quickly expand to indict hunters, fishermen and, of course, livestock producers.

Think those eager young law students to whom Wise does most of his preaching aren’t also aware of the unspoken dynamic at work here, should animal personhood become a reality?

I think I can summarize their thoughts in two words:

Billable hours. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.