Do Chimps Have Legal Rights? NY Lawsuit May Answer the Question
The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that a corporation is a “person” for the purposes of the First Amendment. But what are our closest relatives in the animal world, chimps, entitled to?
In a novel lawsuit, an animal rights group has asked a New York court to find that a chimpanzee named Tommy is entitled to certain “human” rights. The writ of habeas corpus specifically maintains that the chimp is “a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.”
The plaintiff in the case, the Nonhuman Rights Project, alleges that Timmy is unlawfully detained in a “small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed at a used-trailer lot” in violation of his “fundamental right to bodily liberty.” The group seeks to transfer him to a sanctuary.
The Nonhuman Rights Project’s complaint and legal brief rely on a dearth of legal and scientific evidence to advance the argument that Timmy is entitled to the same rights as humans. The Nonhuman Rights Project cites chimpanzees’ cognitive abilities, including a “concept of their past and future” and the ability to “suffer the pain of not being able to fulfill their needs or move around as they wish,”
The group chose to file its first test case in New York because the state already recognizes animals as legal persons for the purpose of being the beneficiary of a trust. The state also takes a fairly liberal approach to writers of habeas corpus. Three additional suits are planned for New York, two of which involve chimpanzees used for study at Stony Brook University.
“Not long ago, people generally agreed that human slaves could not be legal persons, but were simply the property of their owners,” attorney Steven Wise said in a statement. “We will assert, based on clear scientific evidence, that it’s time to take the next step and recognize that these nonhuman animals cannot continue to be exploited as the property of their human ‘owners.’”
While the likelihood of the suit’s success is unclear, the animal rights group’s arguments are worthy of consideration. On the one hand, humans surely have more in common with chimps than Fortune 500 companies. Yet, on the other, writs of habeas corpus have been reserved for the prevention of unlawful human imprisonment for centuries.
So while animal rights have advanced significantly in the past few decades, it is unclear if any court is prepared to declare chimps our legal equals.