Chimps Claim ‘Personhood’ Rights Against Illegal Detention

Chimps Claim ‘Personhood’ Rights Against Illegal Detention
Chimpanzee hooting Matthew Hoelscher / Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
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Chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, who are being use for locomotion studies at Stony Brook, should be recognized as common law legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty under New York’s writ of habeas corpus, a lawyer argued Wednesday.


Steven Wise, an attorney with Nonhuman Rights Project, said the detention of Hercules and Leo for scientific research is the worst confinement similarly given to people with mental illness. Wise’s arguments went as far as saying that with the chimpanzees held captive at Stony Brook, the institution is somehow committing slavery.

Significance of the NY Chimpanzee personhood hearing

The hearing on Wednesday is the first time that a Court heard arguments on a writ of habeas corpus that concerns the legality of a nonhuman animal’s detention. Justice Barbara Jaffe heard oral arguments between Christopher Coulston, an assistant state attorney general representing Stony Brook University and Wise, representing the Nonhuman Rights Project or NhRP.

The hearing followed an “Order to Show Cause” requested by Jaffe in April. The order required for Stony Brook University to appear in court and defend the legality of Hercules and Leo’s detention.

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Chimps detention is similar to slavery

Wise told court that Hercules and Leo’s captivity is similar to slavery or the involuntary detention given to people suffering from mental illness, The Associated Press reported. He argued that the two chimpanzees are “autonomous and self-determining beings.” Hence, they should be granted a writ of habeas corpus.

“They’re essentially in solitary confinement. This is what we do to the worst human criminal,” Wise told court. He disputed that the same writ of habeas corpus granted to Native Americans and blacks back in 1800’s be granted to Hercules and Leo.

He presented the court with scientific studies from experts that determine chimpanzees’ advanced cognitive ability. He said chimps are highly advanced compared to elephants, dolphins, bonobos and orangutans.

What about the rights of other animals?

Coulston argued that the case of Hercules and Leo, when granted the writ of habeas corpus, will create vague precedence for cases involving the rights of other animals.

Jaffe has yet to give her ruling on the case but in a brief filed before the hearing, attorney general’s office stated that the current animal rights law are sufficient to ensure that Hercules and Leo are well taken care of.

The animal rights law in place require for a conducive and sanitary housing facilities for animals. NhRP has not accused the university of violating these laws.

If Hercules and Leo would be granted the writ of habeas corpus, their case “could set a precedent for the release of other animals held in captivity, whether housed at a zoo, in an educational institution, on a farm, or owned as a domesticated pet,” according to the court briefings obtained by The Wall Street Journal.

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