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Harvard class will explore rights of animals

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Harvard Law School is going to the dogs. For the first time, the school will offer a course on what some consider an emerging field: animal rights law.

The elective class next year will discuss fundamental rights -- why humans are entitled to them and why animals have been denied them -- and whether legal rights should be extended beyond people."There is this thick legal wall with humans all on one side and all non-humans on the other side," said attorney Steven Wise, who will teach the course next spring as an adjunct faculty member.

While the law currently protects pets from abuse and endangered species from extinction, animals do not actually have rights -- an age-old position of the legal system.

But over the last 50 years, science has shown that some animals -- chimps in particular -- have extraordinary mental capacities beyond what the ancient Greeks, Romans and Hebrews ever imagined, said Wise, whose forthcoming book is called "Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals."

If they have a human-like intelligence, Wise said, shouldn't that entitle them to human-type rights?

While the concept may sound far-fetched, it wasn't too long ago that women and blacks were denied rights because they were considered, to some degree, less than human, he said.

Harvard's new course was initiated by students, who convinced a faculty committee that it would enrich the curriculum, said Alan Ray, the school's assistant dean for academic affairs.

"It took a 13th Amendment to the Constitution for us to outlaw slavery at a time when people were treated as property because of the color of their skin," Ray said. "There are occasions in the law for taking a very fundamental look at the treatment of other living things."

A similar class has been a popular offering at Hastings College of the Law at the University of California-San Francisco, said Leo Martinez, the school's dean.

Ten students have signed up for an animal law class at Northwestern University's law school in Chicago next fall. Wise has taught the course as well at the John Marshall Law School, also in Chicago, and at Vermont Law School.