I do not know quite what to think about the Non-Human Riughts Project, which won a significant case in New York recently when two chimpanzees were granted writs of habeas corpus. This follows a case late last year when an orangutan was granted legal rights in Argentina.
The Non-Human Rights Project describes itself as
the only organization working through the common law to achieve actual LEGAL rights for members of species other than our own.
Our mission is to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere “things,” which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to “persons,” who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.
Of course, the legal rights of animals may only be advanced through courts by humans. Some humans. Specific humans. Humans paid by a fund of money to do this. So then, is this similar to a hypothetical 19th century case where a lawyer advocated the rights of a slave who is obviously human but legally (at the time) deprived of his right to property in his own labour and self?
I can see Catholic theologians advancing well-considered arguments that this is the thin edge of the wedge, in a process of degrading man to the level of animal. Maybe.
But for sure the Non-Human Rights Project has already had influence. Ringling Brothers announced on March 4, 2015 that its elephants will no longer perform in zoos, and that its existing herd will be retired to a preserve in Florida.
I can easily foresee that the Non-Human Rights Project will argue that pipelines aggress upon caribou herds: that the cases will shift from animals in captivity to animals in the wild, and then we will have yet another anti-development interest arguing before the courts that industrialization should be hampered and cease.