Judge gives chimps 'right' to argue case

Chimpanzees are similar to humans, and many people believe they should not be caged. (Jeff J Mitchell, Getty)

Chimpanzees are similar to humans, and many people believe they should not be caged. (Jeff J Mitchell, Getty)

For the first time in the history of the United States a judge has granted two chimpanzees a petition – through human attorneys – to defend their rights against unlawful imprisonment, allowing a hearing on the status of “legal persons” for the primates.

On Monday, Manhattan supreme court justice Barbara Jaffe granted a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of two nonhuman plaintiffs, Hercules and Leo – chimpanzees used for medical experiments at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

In her order, Jaffe ordered Samuel Stanley Jr, the president of Stony Brook, to argue before the court why the chimpanzees were being “unlawfully detained” at his university and should not be transferred to a primate sanctuary in Florida.

On Tuesday afternoon she struck the words “writ of habeas corpus” from the order, in order to clarify that she had not meant to imply the chimpanzees have legal person status.

The attorneys who brought the petition, part of the Nonhuman Rights Project, argued – before the judge struck the words – that under New York law, “only a ‘legal person’ may have an order to show cause and writ of habeas corpus issued on his or her behalf. The court has therefore implicitly determined that Hercules and Leo are ‘persons’?.”

‘Long, long struggle’
“This is one step in a long, long struggle,” said Steven Wise, the lawyer leading the effort. “She never says explicitly that our nonhuman plaintiffs were persons but by issuing the order … she’s either saying implicitly that they are or that they certainly can be.
So that’s the first time that has happened.

“It feels great. We knew it was going to happen sometime,” he added. “Even though we’re scattered all around the country we all gave each other a high five over the phone.”

A spokesperson for the judge denied that she had implied personhood to the chimpanzees. “She did not say that a chimpanzee is a person,” David Bookstaver told the New York Daily News. “She just gave them the opportunity to argue their case.”

Habeas corpus petitions are used, in theory, to fight unlawful imprisonment by forcing a custodian to prove they have legal cause to detain someone.

Wise’s argument in this case is that chimpanzees are intelligent, emotionally complex and self-aware enough to merit some basic human rights, such as the rights against illegal detainment and cruel treatment. They are “autonomous and self-determining”, in Wise’s words.

‘Things, not people’
Wise said he suspects that Eric Schneiderman, who will represent Stony Brook as attorney general of New York, will argue that “Hercules and Leo are things and that they’re not persons, and that’s where the battle lines are drawn. Are they persons or are they not persons?”

Schneiderman may also draw from past rejections of Wise’s petitions. In one failed bid to remove another chimpanzee, Tommy, from captivity in a trailer in Gloversville, New York, an appeals court argued that chimpanzees do not participate in society and cannot be held accountable for their actions.

“In our view,” the judges wrote, “it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights … that have been afforded to human beings.”

In another decision, a separate appeals court argued that taking the chimpanzee Kiko to a sanctuary amounted to another form of imprisonment, but that habeas corpus was an inappropriate remedy.

The Nonhuman Rights Project hopes to move the chimpanzees to the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Florida, where more than 250 chimps live on a series of islands along the Atlantic coast. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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