As scientists have studied the chimpanzee, they’ve found more and more similarities between humans and their closest living relatives. But when it comes to the courts, chimps and humans couldn’t be more different. Chimpanzees, like other animals, are not considered persons before the law. Instead, they are considered closer to property, a thing that can be bought and sold, albeit with some oversight by the government — too rarely exercised — in the form of animal-welfare regulations.
Now a lawsuit filed on Dec. 2 in New York State seeks to fundamentally overthrow that distinction. The Nonhuman Rights Group, led by the animal-rights lawyer Steven Wise, filed papers with the state supreme court in Fulton County in New York State on Monday, asking that the courts recognize a captive chimpanzee called Tommy as a legal person with a limited right to liberty. The lawsuit seeks to remove Tommy from his owners in Gloversville, Fla., and place him in a sanctuary. The group says it plans to file additional lawsuits later this week on behalf of a chimp kept in a private home in Niagara Falls, and two other chimps owned by a research center and currently being used in experiments at Stony Brook University in New York State.
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What’s potentially revolutionary about the lawsuit is that it seeks to extend the concept of habeas corpus to a chimpanzee. Habeas corpus allows someone being held captive to seek relief by having a judge force his captors to explain why he is being held. It’s frequently used in cases alleging unlawful imprisonment, including those of detainees in Guantánamo. The lawsuit makes reference to a famous 1772 English case that dealt with an American slave named James Somerset, who had escaped from his owner in London, been recaptured and was set to be returned from slavery:
With help from a group of abolitionist attorneys, Somerset’s godparents filed a writ of habeas corpus on Somerset’s behalf in order to challenge Somerset’s classification as a legal thing, and the case went before the Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield. In what became one of the most important trials in Anglo-American history, Lord Mansfield ruled that Somerset was not a piece of property, but instead a legal person, and he set him free.
With testimonials from experts like Jane Goodall, Wise makes the case that chimpanzees have qualities that allow them to have the very basic legal right not to be imprisoned. It’s not that chimpanzees are the legal equivalent of human beings. Rather, the court filing — obtained by James Gorman at the New York Times — argues that chimpanzees are enslaved, and that the courts already recognize that slavery is wrong:
This petition asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.
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There have been attempts in the past to extend so-called human rights to nonhuman primates. In 2008, for example, the Spanish parliament approved a resolution supporting the Great Ape Project, which argues that three essential human rights — life, liberty and freedom from physical and psychological torture — should be extended to our closest relatives. But the Nonhuman Rights Project lawsuit would seem to go further, and could potentially open the door for more lawsuits of the sort. That’s assuming, of course, that the courts even decide to hear the petition, although even a denial of a habeas corpus case gets an automatic appeal in New York State. The group’s press release announcing the lawsuit makes the enormous scope of its aims clear:
Our goal is, very simply, to breach the legal wall that separates all humans from all nonhuman animals. Once this wall is breached, the first nonhuman animals on earth will gain legal “personhood” and finally get their day in court — a day they so clearly deserve.
Chimpanzees and their advocates have had a good year so far, with the National Institutes of Health deciding to retire most of the lab chimps owned by the government, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposing to add captive chimpanzees to the endangered species list, which would severely curtail research on the primates. But what is set to unfold in a New York courtroom in the days ahead could fundamentally change how chimpanzees are treated in the U.S. — and force us to reconsider what we think of as “human rights.”