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Court Decision Implies Possible Legal Personhood for Chimps (UPDATED)

The ruling could be a first step in establishing basic rights for sentient animals.

Photo by Thomas Lersch via Wikimedia Commons

Two chimpanzees named Hercules and Leo, both unwilling residents of a biomedical lab at Stony Brook University, have been given a chance at freedom—a court decision has granted a writ of habeas corpus to the primates, recognizing them, to an extent, as persons with rights. Habeas corpus is a specific legal application allowing a judge or court to free an imprisoned individual if there is no sufficient reason to keep them locked up. As the writ is only for people and not property, its use in this case implies de facto personhood for the pair. In Manhattan Supreme Court yesterday, Justice Barbara Jaffe issued a ruling that demanded a representative of Stony Brook show up for court on May 6 to defend the chimps’ detainment, reports Science magazine. If Stony Brook cannot come up with a good enough reason for keeping Hercules and Leo in captivity, they will be released to a chimpanzee sanctuary in Florida.


The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), an organization that seeks basic legal rights for species other than humans, brought the petition on behalf of the chimps. “For the first time, a judge is ordering that somebody who is detaining a chimpanzee appear in a courtroom to justify this imprisonment,” Natalie Prosin, Executive Director of the NhRP, told io9 this morning. The organization has been pursuing the habeas corpus strategy for several years. According to Science:

The case began as a salvo of lawsuits filed by NhRP in December of 2013. The group claimed that four New York chimpanzees—Hercules and Leo at Stony Brook, and two others on private property—were too cognitively and emotionally complex to be held in captivity and should be relocated to an established chimpanzee sanctuary.

Photo by Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons

The sanctuary in question is Save the Chimps, a facility in Fort Pierce, FL, where, according to the NhRP website, Hercules and Leo would be able to “spend the rest of their lives primarily on one of 13 artificial islands on a large lake...along with 250 other chimpanzees in an environment as close to that of their natural home in Africa as can be found in North America.” On Save the Chimps’ site, the organization claims to go through 1,300 bananas a day.

But the chimps are still not out of (or in this case, into) the woods yet. This is just one step in what will surely be a long legal battle, not just for Hercules and Leo’s future, but also for the well-being of sentient creatures everywhere. The judge’s decision is a landmark moment for animal rights, and a sign of the growing public will to establish a legal status for certain species that differentiates them from mere inanimate objects. Science writes:

Prosin says that even if NhRP loses the case, it will use the habeas corpus ruling to sway judges in other jurisdictions. “It strengthens our argument that these nonhuman animals are not property,” she says. The group plans to file another case—this one involving a captive elephant—by the end of the year and has set its sights on other animals, including research animals, across the country. “We have the scientific evidence to prove in a court of law that elephants, great apes, and whales and dolphins are autonomous beings and deserve the right to bodily liberty,” she says.

UPDATE: Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe has revised her original order, maintaining the May 6 hearing, but cutting out the habeas corpus writ. Jaffe claims she felt that the issue deserved to be heard, but did not mean for her decision to have wider implications for simian rights.The Nonhuman Rights Project does not appear to be deterred by the revision.

“These cases are novel and this is the first time that an Order to Show Cause has issued,” Steven Wise of the NhRP said in a statement. “We are grateful for an opportunity to litigate the issue of the freedom of the chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, at the ordered May hearing.”

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