Rancho Santa Fe native pushes for legal rights for cognitively complex animals


By Karen Billing

Torrey Pines High School graduate Natalie Prosin is leading a fight for the legal rights of animals. At age 29, Prosin is the executive director of the Nonhuman Rights Project, a non-profit organization with a goal to establish legal “personhood” for “nonhuman animals.”

“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,” Prosin said.

Starting next year, the Nonhuman Rights Project group will file lawsuits in state courts to attempt to give personhood status for cognitively complex animals such as great apes, dolphins, whales, elephants and African Grey parrots.

This kind of case has never been done or tried before, she said.

“It will be very historic, regardless of whether we win or not,” Prosin said. “The challenge has been to find jurisdictions most amenable to our arguments. We have 60 different legal issues across all 50 states; it’s about finding which state high court is most likely to rule in our favor.”

Their historic efforts have recently caught a lot of attention and their journey is currently a documentary film focus of Oscar-nominated filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

Prosin is a Rancho Santa Fe native, attending R. Roger Rowe School. Her family moved to Del Mar while she attended Torrey Pines where she was a part of the class of 2001.

She graduated summa cum laude from Northeastern University in 2005, holds a master’s degree from Brown University and earned her law degree from Boston College Law School in 2011.

She currently lives in Washington D.C.

Prosin’s love of animals started at a young age. She rode horses at the Rancho Santa Fe Riding Club and while in high school thought she might become a veterinarian.

“In college and graduate school I started focusing more on animal issues and animal law,” Prosin said.

Learning more about issues such as animals used in laboratories and endangered species really drove her decision to go to law school.

In her first semester at Boston College, Prosin joined the national non-profit Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and helped establish a student group.

Her group helped get out the vote on a state ballot initiative to ban all greyhound racing; the ballot initiative was successful. Prosin also helped initiate a cage-free egg campaign on campus dining halls, distributing literature about the inhumane practices of factory farms, such as their confined conditions and how egg-laying hens must stand on a wire for their entire loves.

“We persuaded all four Boston College cafeterias to switch to cage-free eggs,” Prosin said.

At Boston, she also co-taught a course on environmental law and policy to undergraduates and put an animal rights twist into a lot of her curriculum.

Prosin’s work did not go unnoticed by ALDF and they were able to connect her with the Nonhuman Rights Project where she had an animal law clerkship while in college.

The group hired her full-time as soon as she graduated in May 2011.

“I was absolutely thrilled,” Prosin said. “I had worked with the president Steve Wise all throughout law school and really believed in what they were trying to do.”

The Nonhuman Rights Project is still growing as an organization and runs with the help of about 70 volunteers.

Prosin said animal cruelty laws can only go so far and that is why she hopes their efforts are successful. It is the hope that if they win their cases, these animals can be transferred to some kind of sanctuary.

“I’m troubled by the exploitation of animals, whether it’s in the entertainment industry or the research lab,” Prosin said. “I’ve always been driven by protecting animals. … I can lay down at night and feel very good about the work I’ve done for the day.”

Prosin personally feels very strongly about advocating for animals and encourages people to stop and think because animals affect so many aspects of our lives.

Prosin said animals are affected by decisions people make on food and entertainment, as well as purchases made on items that are tested on animals to things purchased that aren’t even about eating animals — Prosin cites the example of palm oil. The demand for palm oil, used in many commercial foods and personal care products, leads to the clearing of tropical forests, which destroys the habitats of endangered species such as the Sumatran orangutan.

“You can link almost anything we use to animals,” Prosin said. “It’s just about making better choices to help animals.”

To learn more about Prosin’s efforts, visit