Law lecturer cited in “the most important animal-rights case of the 21st century”

University of Leicester legal expert, Dr Joe Wills, has been cited in what The Atlantic described as “the most important animal-rights case of the 21st century”. 

The petition before New York State’s highest appellant court has garnered global attention for the novel questions it raised about the legal status of animals.

The case concerned whether keeping a 49-year-old Asian elephant called Happy at the Bronx Zoo amounted to an unlawful detention. The appeal was filed by a group called the Nonhuman Rights Project who argue that cognitively complex animals like elephants have a right against confinement and ought to be relocated to sanctuaries where they can exercise their autonomous capacities. 

Dr Wills, from Leicester Law School drafted and co-ordinated a legal brief in support of the Nonhuman Rights Project on behalf of 36 UK-based animal law experts. Other briefs were filed by some of the world’s leading animal behavioural experts, philosophers, judges, theologians and civil rights lawyers.

The Court determined – by a 5-2 majority – that Happy did not have a right to liberty and that only humans enjoy such a right. Two judges dissented on this point, arguing that animals with advanced cognitive capacities have an interest in liberty that should be legally protected.

The leading dissenting judgement – written by Judge Wilson – approvingly cited the legal brief drafted by Dr Wills in making the case for extending liberty rights to nonhuman animals. 

Dr Wills said: “I am encouraged that two judges sitting on New York State’s highest court have grasped the need for the law governing animals to evolve alongside shifting scientific understanding and ethical norms. These dissents provide the blueprint for future animal rights jurisprudence”.