US judge grants legal right of ‘personhood’ to laboratory chimps in landmark case

April 22, 2015 12:00 pm

A judge has granted the legal right of habeas corpus to two
chimpanzees being held at a biomedical research facility in the US – a
decision that animal rights activists hailed as the first time chimps
that had been afforded the status of legal “persons”.
Habeas corpus, which governs against unlawful detention, has before now been applied only to humans.
The
two chimpanzees in question, Hercules and Leo, currently reside at
Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York state, where they have
reportedly been used by scientists studying the evolution of human
bipedalism. The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), an animal rights group,
first filed a lawsuit on their behalf in 2013, demanding they be
relocated to a sanctuary in Florida.

The case was dismissed by a
county court, but the NhRP has continued to appeal, and on Monday Judge
Barbara Jaffe, of the New York state Supreme Court, granted the group
its first significant legal victory. She issued the habeas corpus writ
and ordered Stony Brook’s lawyers to appear at a hearing to argue for
the chimps’ continued detention.

Habeas corpus requires the authorities – in this case, the university – to prove the legality of a person’s imprisonment.
Depending
on the outcome of that hearing, set for 6 May, the ruling could result
in the chimps being freed, offering the possibility of release to
countless other US research animals. The NhRP, which says it intends to
use the decision as a precedent, purports to be “the only organisation
working toward actual legal rights for members of species other than our
own”.

Personhood for animals

The NhRP’s
mission, according to its website, is “to change the common law status
of at least some non-human animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the
capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons’.” In its original
legal brief on the case, the organisation explained: “Person is not a
synonym for ‘human being’, but designates an entity with the capacity
for legal rights.”
The group argues that New York state has
previously expanded the definition of legal personhood to include, for
example, corporations or pets named in their owners’ wills. Hercules and
Leo’s case began as one of several lawsuits filed by the NhRP in
December 2013 on behalf of the Stony Brook primates, as well as two
other chimps being held privately, Kiko and Tommy. Tommy is a
26-year-old former circus performer who lives at a caravan site in
upstate New York.
The NhRP characterises the lawsuits not as
animal welfare cases, but as animal rights cases. The chimps’ owners are
not accused of any abuse, but the campaign group argues that the
animals are too intelligent and emotionally complex to be held in
captivity, and should instead be transferred to the Save the Chimps
sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Florida. The sanctuary, composed of 13
artificial islands on a lake, is home to about 250 chimpanzees and is,
according to the NhRP, “an environment as close to that of their natural
home in Africa as can be found in North America”.
The group has
said it intends to fight similar legal battles on behalf of other
intelligent animals including elephants, dolphins, orcas and other great
apes. “This is a big step forward to getting what we are ultimately
seeking: the right to bodily liberty for chimpanzees and other
cognitively complex animals,” Natalie Prosin, executive director of the
NhRP, told Science magazine. “We got our foot in the door. And no matter what happens, that door can never be completely shut again.”
Yet
some legal experts warn that the implications of Judge Jaffe’s ruling
should not be overstated. Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine
University in California, who opposes personhood for animals, told the
magazine, “The judge may merely want more information to make a decision
on the legal personhood claim, and may have ordered a hearing simply as
a vehicle for hearing out both parties in more depth.
“It would
be quite surprising if the judge intended to make a momentous
substantive finding that chimpanzees are legal persons if the judge has
not yet heard the other side’s arguments.”

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