Legal Personhood: Lesson 5 Geography, Yr 10

Animals: Property or Persons?

The learning sequence for this activity is designed to give students insight into work by scientists to better understand animal intelligence and the work of lawyers to have this reflected in our courts. Species such as great apes, cetaceans and elephants are currently the focus of the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), which challenges us all to rethink the human-animal duality. Using the geographical inquiry method, students will undertake learning tasks with a final real-world outcome.

Time Allocation

Four lessons.

Voiceless Resources

Key Inquiry Questions

  • What is ‘legal personhood’ and are animals considered ‘persons’ or ‘property’ under the law?
  • How have scientific attitudes towards animals we consider intelligent changed over time?
  • Why do you think the NhRP has chosen elephants, great apes and cetaceans for their ground-breaking work?

Suggested Learning Activities


Teachers begin with a general discussion about the rights afforded to animals in our legal system. How do these differ from human rights? Why do students think animals are seen as lesser than humans under the law? What does this mean for the way animals are used by humans in daily life?

To help students prepare to tackle these complex questions, watch and discuss the Voiceless Video and Fact Sheet on the topic.


Task 1: Group Activity

This task introduces students to the clients of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP). Direct students to this link:

Students investigate the back-story of each client. In groups, they research and report back. The clients are:

  1. Tommy (chimpanzee)
  2. Kiko (chimpanzee)
  3. Hercules and Leo (chimpanzees)
  4. Beulah, Karen and Minnie (elephants)

Task 2: Individual Activity

The NhRP has selected certain species as their clients. They state that,

[c]urrently, our potential clients are individual great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales living in captivity across the US. They are members of species for whom there is ample, robust scientific evidence of self-awareness and autonomy—qualities the common law already purports to value where humans are concerned. We view these qualities as sufficient, but not necessary, for recognition of common law personhood and fundamental rights. In other words, self-awareness and autonomy are a starting point for our long-term litigation campaign: the most effective starting point, in our view.

The animal clients represented by the NhRP lawyers are autonomous and self-aware. Using the background research about the individual client assigned in Task 1, students discuss the potential experience of captivity for the client, and consider whether life in a sanctuary environment would be preferable. Students are to use the geographical inquiry method in their response (400-500 words).


As a class, discuss student responses to Task 2.


For homework, students consider the following question and are encouraged to discuss it with family members and friends: ‘Some people, including the NhRP, may argue that keeping self-aware and autonomous animals captive has certain parallels to human slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. What do you think?’

To help us improve our materials, we would appreciate any work, feedback or thoughts you would like to share:

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