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NY judge recognizes chimps as persons: A step toward legal rights for animals?

A New York judge ruled that the writ of habeas corpus, which allows humans to challenge their imprisonment, applied to two chimpanzees held for research at a Long Island university. The decision could be a first step towards broader recognition in the United States of the legal personhood of apes and other animals. 

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    A female chimp carries her 'baby' on her back at Chimp Haven, which is also The National Chimpanzee Sanctuary, on Sept. 30, 2014 in Keithville, La. In April, a New York judge ruled that chimpanzees were covered by the writ of habeas corpus, which allows humans to challenge their imprisonment. The decision could be a first step towards broader recognition in the United States of the legal personhood of apes and other nonhumans.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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[Editor's note: New York Supreme Court justice Barbara Jaffe on Wednesday amended her original order, striking the words, "writ of habeas corpus" from the ruling. While the chimpanzees may still get legal representation in court, "their personhood is not up for debate at the moment," according to The Washington Post.]

For the first time in US history, a New York judge has effectively recognized chimpanzees as legal persons.

Justice Barbara Jaffe of the New York Supreme Court ruled on April 17 that the writ of habeas corpus, a court order that allows people to challenge their imprisonment, applied to Hercules and Leo, two chimps held for research at Stony Brook University in Long Island. The judicial action could not only force the university to release the primates, but could also be a first step towards broader recognition in the United States of the legal personhood of nonhuman apes and other animals.

The decision comes two years after the NhRP filed cases against the detention of four animals: Hercules and Leo at Stony Brook and two other chimps on private property. Should Justice Jaffe decide in their favor, the chimps would be transferred out of the university to an animal sanctuary in Florida.

“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 The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), which filed the case, told Science magazine.

The fight for the recognition of animal rights, which began in the 1970s, has since evolved into its own field in law, legal education, and activism.

Modern advocates “envision a world in which the lives and interests of all sentient beings are respected within the legal system… [and] animals are not exploited, terrorized, tortured, or controlled to serve human whims or purposes,” Joyce Tischler, co-founder and former executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, wrote for the Stanford Journal of Animal Law and Policy.

It’s an idea that can be confusing for some. Would acknowledging the legal rights of animals make them equal to people, for instance?

The answer, say experts, is no. In discussing the declaration of rights of cetaceans (whales, porpoises, and dolphins) first drafted at the 2012 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, news magazine Scientific American noted:

The idea of granting personhood rights to nonhumans would not make them equal to humans. They would not vote, sit on a jury, or attend public school. However, by legally making whales and dolphins “nonhuman persons,” with individual rights under law, it would obligate governments to protect cetaceans from slaughter or abuse.

Critics have, however, focused on the muddling of concepts. Animal law practitioner George Duckler, for instance, argued that advocates of animal personhood deny the inherent difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, which is critical in understanding the concept of “rights.” 

The animal rights movement earnestly but mistakenly believes that rights are disconnected from duties – but only for animals other than humans. Somehow, humans are required to fulfill duties to respect the rights of animals to life, freedom, from human-induced pain, and confinement, but animals are not required to have similar duties reciprocally. That inequity casts a strong reflection on the movement’s misconstruction of “rights.”

Still, legal bodies outside the United States have been recognizing animals’ legal rights for years. Leading the way has been the Great Apes Project (GAP), an international movement that seeks to defend the rights of the nonhuman great primates – chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans.

The campaign was part of the reason New Zealand signed into law its Animal Welfare Act in 1999, which acknowledges the rights of the great primates to life, to liberty, and to freedom from torture and distress. Spain passed a similar law in 2008, while the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals prohibits the cruel treatment and abandonment of pets.

Could the New York decision mean that the United States will soon follow? One opponent of personhood for animals warned against jumping to conclusions.

“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,” Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, told Scientific American.

“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,” he added.

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