No, chimps are not people. That’s what a New York State Supreme Court ruled in late July. But the judgment, which stated that the matter is open for discussion and could soon change, was viewed as a step in the right direction for animal rights advocates.
As animals gain more rights and as the legal definition of personhood expands, it may be just a matter of time before the law sees chimpanzees, and perhaps other animals, as more than mere property.
Hercules and Leo not granted writs of habeas corpus
The case before the New York Supreme Court concerned two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, both of whom were used in nonmedical research at Stony Brook University on Long Island in New York.
The Nonhuman Rights Project was the petitioner, with attorneys Steven Wise and Elizabeth Stein arguing on behalf of the chimps. They argued only on the issue of whether Hercules and Leo could be detained, not on the condition of their confinement or on the topic of animal welfare in general. They sought habeas corpus relief, something that has only ever been granted to human beings.
Multiple news outlets initially reported that Judge Barbara Jaffe had granted the writ of habeas corpus, but an amended order showed those words crossed out. In the 33-page decision, Jaffe denied the petition for a writ of habeas corpus and dismissed the case, while concluding that “Efforts to extend legal rights to chimpanzees are thus understandable; some day they may even succeed.”
Animals are considered property, but this is changing
This is not the first case of its type. The same petitioner, the Nonhuman Rights Project, previously filed suit in Suffolk County on behalf of Hercules and Leo and in Fulton and Niagara Counties on behalf of chimps Tommy and Kiko, respectively. So far, no courts have granted personhood to any chimpanzee.
Proponents of arguments for chimp personhood focus on how similar chimpanzees are to humans—chimpanzee and human DNA is nearly 99 percent identical—and claim that chimps deserve more rights on the basis of their advanced cognitive abilities, capacity to express empathy and morality, and demonstration of self-awareness.
Legally, animals are considered property in the United States, but instances of animals being treated as more than property have increased; consider, for example, divorce cases where couples must decide who gets to keep the dog. Animal cruelty laws, though they vary widely by state, are growing stricter, and even the FBI decided last year to reclassify animal cruelty as a Class A felony, placing it in the same tier as crimes like arson and murder.
Such laws and policies reflect the strong emotional bonds humans have with animals, particularly pets, and behaviors that would not have been considered crimes a generation ago now lead to stiff penalties. From a legal standpoint, the strongest claim Hercules and Leo had to legal personhood was New York State’s decision to allow pets to be beneficiaries of a trust. This is a far cry from being granted habeas corpus, but it shows that the law can consider animals as more than pieces of personal property.
How can a chimp be a “person”?
The heart of this case lies in determining whether chimpanzees have some of the rights naturally afforded to people. Seeking “legal personhood” for a chimp is not as strange as it may sound since, in the eyes of the law, the concept of personhood is not tied to biology, but rights. The term “person” is not defined in New York Code Article 70, which pertains to habeas corpus, nor is it defined by common law of habeas corpus. To some extent, it is up for interpretation.
As part of her decision, Jaffe noted that an animal neglect case in Oregon concluded that the horse in question was considered a “person” and also covered how the concept of personhood has changed greatly over the last two centuries in the United States, expanding from including only white, property-owning males to including men and women of all races.
In arguments for the chimps, the petitioner said the law should use the “legal fiction” that chimpanzees are legal persons in order to grant habeas corpus, much in the same way “legal fiction” is used to support corporate personhood. It’s a way to bring certain rights, protections, and privileges to an entity, even if that entity isn’t human or, indeed, even animal.
The university argued that the court was bound by the December 2014 decision of People ex rel. Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v Lavery, a case concerning Tommy the chimp that determined that a chimpanzee is not entitled to personhood because it cannot take on duties or responsibilities. “The ascription of rights has historically been connected with the imposition of societal obligations and duties,” wrote Justice Karen Peters. Jaffe, who agreed that she was bound by that previous decision, ruled accordingly.
“The pace may now be accelerating”
In her conclusion, however, Jaffe said that courts “are slow to embrace change” and noted that the pace may be accelerating on this issue. If and when chimpanzees are granted some rights of personhood, their use for research or entertainment purposes would likely change drastically, if not end altogether. Such a change would reflect our growing understanding of how much we have in common with chimpanzees and, as Jaffe said, “who counts under our law.”
The Nonhuman Rights Project reports a tentatively happy ending to this particular story, as Stony Brook University has indicated it will no longer use Hercules and Leo for research.