A New York City judge recently ordered a hearing that will focus on whether or not caged chimpanzees will be considered to be “legal persons” in the eyes of the law with the ability to sue for their freedom.
The case centers around Hercules and Leo, two chimpanzees who, according to their legal representation, are being “unlawfully detained” at Stony Brook University on Long Island.
Officials at the university have been ordered by Justice Barbara Jaffe of New York State Supreme Court to show cause for holding the chimps instead of releasing them to an animal sanctuary in Florida, reports Jacob Gershman for The Wall Street Journal.
The ruling stands as the first time in US history that an animal will be covered by habeas corpus, which is normally used for human prisoners who are challenging their detention. The decision could cause the university to be forced to release the animals, in addition to causing future judges to make similar rulings in cases concerning research animals.
“This is a big step forward to getting what we are ultimately seeking: the right to bodily liberty for chimpanzees and other cognitively complex animals,” says Natalie Prosin, the executive director of the animal rights organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), that filed the case. “We got our foot in the door. And no matter what happens, that door can never be completely shut again.”
While animal rights supporters initially celebrated the order, citing Justice Jaffe’s inclusion of the wording “writ of habeas corpus,”Justice Jaffe has since amended the order to rid it of the language pertaining to a writ. Instead, Jaffe said that the order was merely a formal way to ensure the university appears in her courtroom to present their case, writes Jesse McKinley for The New York Times.
However, supporters remain encouraged by her decision to sign off on the order drafted by the NonHuman Rights Project.
Meanwhile, critics of the decision maintain that the animals do not have any legal rights.
“Nonhuman animals do not have legal rights any more than they have legal responsibilities,” said Bob Kohn, a technology lawyer in Manhattan who has filed briefs opposing efforts to secure human rights for chimps and other animals. “For a court to hold otherwise would have tremendous adverse legal and moral implications for mankind.”
Eric Schneiderman, the New York State attorney general in charge of defending the university, would not comment on the situation. The university itself only said that it “awaits the court’s full consideration on this matter.” It remains unclear why the animals, believed to be about 7 or 8 years old, are being held.