On Monday, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed papers suing the state of New York for the emancipation of a privately owned chimpanzee named Tommy. They plan to file two more suits on behalf of another privately owned chimp named Kiko, and a pair of research chimps called Hercules and Leo.
The group uses the legal argument of habeas corpus, which requires a person under detention to be brought before a court, especially to end unlawful imprisonment. It was notably used by the antislavery movement to define human beings as legal persons, not legal property. Chimpanzees, because of their awareness of self and of passing time, should also have rights to bodily liberty, the group argues.
Ben Richmond digs into the case:
The group’s essential argument is that a chimpanzee can be recognized as “legal person” without biologically being a person. Just as corporations can be people under the Fourteenth Amendment, “legal personality may be granted to entities other than individual human beings, e.g. a group of human beings, a fund, an idol.” The memorandum of law for Tommy’s case cites a case in New Zealand where the Whanganui River Iwi was designated as a legal person, as well as two separate examples from India where a mosque and an idol were granted legal personhood. If Tommy can be recognized as a legal person then, the case argues, he deserves to be set free under the common law writ of habeas corpus, unless the owner of Santa’s Hitching Post, a tourist attraction where Tommy is kept, can prove that “their imprisonment of Tommy is legally sufficient.”
Bryan Walsh calls the suit “potentially revolutionary” from a legal perspective:
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 testimonials from experts like Jane Goodall, [the suit] 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
Michael Todd adds:
“Personhood” is a big step beyond just calling for an end, say, to animal experimentation or pigeon shoots.
A lot of observers, including some in the animal rights movement itself, see it as quixotic or loaded with a raft of unintended, and potentially unwelcome, consequences. But we already know that corporations are people, possibly even having rights like freedom of religion, so what might have once seemed absurd now merely seems a stretch.
Elie Mystal sees the logic:
Whatever you think of the cognitive abilities and emotions of chimps, I think we can all agree that they are different from, say, chairs. They’re different from cars. Treating these animals as mere property is simply wrong. We do, of course, have a class of persons in this country who don’t have maximum rights but are more than mere property. They’re called “children,” and most of them have considerably less intelligence than a chimpanzee. So there is precedent for extending legal protection to “human-like” creatures who throw poop and change the channel during the last two minutes of a football game.
But Stephen Bainbridge isn’t buying it:
The problem, I believe, is that attempts to define the debate in moral or philosophical terms ignores the basic fact that the rationale for corporate personhood sounds in neither. Instead, it is based on practicality and utility. Put another way, we treat the corporation as a legal person because doing so has proven to be a highly efficient way for real people to organize their business activities and to vindicate their rights. Put yet another way, we treat the corporation as a legal person because it is a nexus of contracts between real persons. Which is something no animal can ever be.
Either way, the stakes are high:
If NhRP is successful in New York, it could be a significant step toward upending millennia of law defining animals as property and could set off a “chain reaction” that could bleed over to other jurisdictions, says Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and a proponent of focusing on animal welfare rather than animal rights. “But if they lose it could be a significant step backward for the movement. They’re playing with fire.”
(Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)