Chimpanzees are back in court. Today, judges in New York state heard the first in a series of appeals attempting to grant “legal personhood” to the animals. The case is part of a larger effort by an animal rights group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to free a variety of creatures—from research chimps to aquarium dolphins—from captivity.
Late last year, NhRP filed lawsuits in three New York lower courts on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in the state. Two—Tommy and Kiko—live in cages on private property, according to the group. The other two—Hercules and Leo—are lab chimps at Stony Brook University. The litigation was spearheaded by Steven Wise, a prominent animal rights lawyer and NhRP’s founder, who spent years consulting with scientists, policy experts, and other lawyers to hone a strategy. His group settled on filing a writ of habeas corpus, which allows a person being held captive to have a say in court. Any judge that granted the writ would be tacitly acknowledging that a chimpanzee is a legal person and thus must be freed from its current confines.
That didn’t happen: All three lower courts dismissed the lawsuits. So NhRP appealed, and Wise argued the first of those appeals this afternoon. Making his case for Tommy in front of a five-judge panel and a packed courthouse, he contended that chimpanzees are so cognitively and genetically similar to humans that they deserve a fundamental right to bodily liberty. He wants Tommy—and eventually the other chimpanzees—moved to a sanctuary in Florida. Wise didn’t have any pushback: Tommy’s owners didn’t appear in court, and they didn’t file legal briefs challenging the case.
“It went as well as we could have hoped,” says NhRP’s executive director, Natalie Prosin, who was also at the hearing. “The judges were really engaged. They had obviously read our briefs and materials, and they asked really intelligent questions.”
Prosin is also heartened by a move the court made in July. In response to NhRP’s concerns that Tommy’s owners would try to move him out of state to avoid further litigation, the judges unanimously granted a preliminary injunction to prevent any move. “That was a major victory for us,” Prosin says. “It means the court thinks our appeal has a decent chance of success.”
That’s a fair assessment, says Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and a noted opponent of personhood for animals. But he still doesn’t think NhRP is going to win. “The weight of precedent and reasoning goes so strongly against these cases,” says Cupp, who would rather see a focus on animal welfare than animal rights. “Animal personhood is an artificial and unrealistic concept,” he says. “Language won’t help these creatures—human responsibility will.” (...)