Primate Rescue Center

Arguing in Court Whether 2 Chimps Have the Right to ‘Bodily Liberty’

Erika Fleury May 27, 2015

A New York state judge heard arguments today on whether chimpanzees can be considered persons with some legal rights, as advocates seeking to free two chimps in captivity on Long Island asserted they were “autonomous beings” and compared their plight to that of human slaves.

“They are the kinds of beings who can remember the past and plan ahead for the future,” Steven M. Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project told the court, “which is one of the reasons imprisoning a chimp is at least as bad and maybe worse than imprisoning a person.”

Steven Wise, left, of the Nonhuman Rights Project, and Christopher Coulston, an assistant attorney general. Photo courtesy Richard Drew / New York Times.

The unusual hearing in State Supreme Court in Manhattan concerned the fate of Hercules and Leo, two 8-year-old chimpanzees being studied by a researcher at Stony Brook University. The Nonhuman Rights Project has sued to have them released, trying to use the time-honored writ of habeas corpus, a cornerstone of American law that allows a person to challenge unlawful imprisonment.

But what is a person under the law? That was the focus of arguments before Justice Barbara Jaffe. Mr. Wise contended that chimpanzees are enough like humans that they should have a right to “bodily liberty,” even if other rights, like voting or freedom of religion, are beyond them.

Citing affidavits from nine experts on chimpanzees, Mr. Wise said recent science has shown chimpanzees and other great apes are not governed solely by instinct, but can make plans and take action to shape their future. They are self-aware, he argued, possessing not only an understanding of the passage of time, but also language and mathematical skills. “These animals are indeed autonomous, self-determining beings,” he said.

But Christopher Coulston, an assistant state attorney general representing the university, countered that animals like chimpanzees cannot enjoy the same rights as humans because they cannot fulfill other duties required of them by human laws.

“They can’t bear the moral responsibility in our society, and the correlative rights and duties do not make sense to chimps,” he said. “They are just not equipped the same way as human beings to be members of society.”

Mr. Coulston also warned that granting a right of bodily liberty to chimpanzees, based on their cognitive abilities, would open the door to arguing for similar rights for other animals, from livestock to pets. “You are absolutely opening a possible floodgate,” he said.

Besides the petitions for Hercules and Leo, the Nonhuman Rights Project has filed writs of habeas corpus in New York on behalf of two other captive chimpanzees: Tommy, owned by a couple in Gloversville, about 50 miles northwest of Albany; and Kiko, housed at the Primate Sanctuary in Niagara Falls. The group is seeking to transfer the chimpanzees to a sanctuary in southern Florida, where they would live on a five-acre island with 25 to 30 other chimpanzees.

Mr. Wise’s group does not try to hide its goal of using the suits as test cases to promote a novel legal theory that some animals — among them great apes, dolphins and elephants — share enough human traits to be deemed persons under the law and thus should not be held in captivity.

Lower courts in Fulton, Niagara and Suffolk counties have rejected Mr. Wise’s arguments, and those rulings were upheld by appellate courts. The most expansive ruling came in December, when a five-member appeals court in Albany ruled against the group’s attempt to free Tommy, the Gloversville chimpanzee.

That panel noted that “animals have never been considered persons for the purposes of habeas corpus relief” and said that the chimps were not able to live up to “the rights and duties that attach to legal personhood.”

Undeterred, Mr. Wise has appealed the rulings in the two upstate cases to the state’s highest court.

The Suffolk County ruling dealt with Hercules and Leo. During the hearing on Wednesday, Mr. Coulston accused Mr. Wise’s group of “forum shopping” and urged Justice Jaffe to dismiss the motion because the matter had already been decided.

But Mr. Wise responded that habeas corpus petitions are one of the few legal actions that can be brought to any justice in the state and can be submitted repeatedly. He pointed out such lawsuits were used extensively in the 19th century to fight human slavery and were often brought by abolitionists on behalf of slaves they did not know.

Mr. Coulston also argued that, even if the judge rules that chimpanzees can be considered persons under the law, merely transferring Hercules and Leo from captivity at Stony Brook to a different kind of captivity in Florida would solve nothing: They would still be deprived of liberty. “The transfer from one facility to another is never an appropriate remedy under Habeas Corpus,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Coulston asserted that it was improper for a court to decide whether the animals are entitled to a writ of habeas corpus, saying Justice Jaffe should leave it to the Legislature to define personhood in this case.

Justice Jaffe gave few clues about which way she would rule. She quizzed Mr. Wise about why she should not follow the appellate court’s rulings in the other two cases.

But she also told Mr. Coulston that for centuries judges in England and America have broadly interpreted the rules governing habeas corpus, sometimes called the “great writ,” and have expanded the concept to adapt to changing times.

“Isn’t it incumbent on the judiciary to at least consider whether a class of beings might be granted a right or something short of the right under the habeas corpus law?” she asked.

- The New York Times

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