This week, efforts that have been years in the works have finally made their debut with the filing of the first of many lawsuits seeking to demolish the legal wall that separates humans from nonhuman animals.
Unbeknownst to Tommy, a 26-year-old chimpanzee, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed a lawsuit this week in New York state under the writ of habeus corpus seeking to have him released to a sanctuary that is part of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA).
Tommy lives in isolation, confined to a cage in a trailer with only a television as company. The lawsuit filed on his behalf will be followed by others for Kiko, a former victim of the entertainment industry, and then for Hercules and Leo, who are owned by the New Iberia Research Center and are confined to cages while being used in locomotion research at Stony Brook University to explore how humans evolved to walk on two feet.
NhRP believes that these chimps are entitled to live with basic rights to bodily liberty and bodily integrity, something we humans are entitled to as legal persons. Legally, no one can touch you, confine you or experiment on you against your will. According to the group:
Courts recognize that a sufficient, though not necessary condition of a fundamental right like bodily liberty is the possession of certain qualities. With over half a century of scientific evidence to support our legal arguments, and affidavits submitted in support of our lawsuit by an international group of the world’s most respected primatologists, our lawsuits set out to establish that chimpanzees possess such complex cognitive abilities as autonomy, self-determination, self-consciousness, awareness of the past, anticipation of the future, and the ability to make choices; that they display complex emotions like empathy; and that they construct diverse cultures. The possession of these characteristics is sufficient to establish personhood and the consequential fundamental right to bodily liberty.
For these chimpanzees, and other nonhuman animals, the problem isn’t just that they are kept as commodities with an economic value, but that it’s socially and legally acceptable to do so. They are something, not someone. For many people, the outcome for these nonhuman animals is fine as long as they’re treated kindly along the way. Unfortunately, the welfare movement continues to leave billions of nonhuman animals condemned to a life of systematic abuse, confinement, mutilation, physical and psychological torture and death at our hands for food, fashion, experimentation and entertainment.
“No one has ever demanded a legal right for a nonhuman animal, until now,” said Steven M. Wise, founder and president of NhRP. “When we go to court on behalf of the first chimpanzee plaintiffs, we’ll be asking judges to recognize, for the first time, that these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned.”
Why Habeas Corpus?
It’s inconceivable today to think that at one point in our not so distant past, we didn’t recognize African American humans as people. It was perfectly acceptable to keep them as chattel, instead of recognizing them as humans with rights and self-interests.
According to NhRP, the organization is basing its lawsuits on a case that took place in 1772 that involved an American slave named James Somerset. Abolitionist attorneys for Somerset, who had been taken to London by his owner, escaped and was recaptured, filed a writ of habeus corpus before Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield. The case resulted in Lord Mansfield ruling that Somerset was not a piece of property, could not be held as such and set him free.
The ruling obviously didn’t end legalized slavery, but it helped set the stage. New York’s recognition of habeus corpus, which has historically been used to gain freedom from unlawful detention, as common law made it an ideal place to file the lawsuits. The four chimps named as plaintiffs were all who could be found in the state. Reba and Merlin, who were supposed to be the original plaintiffs, died before action could be taken on their behalf, which led to the decision to include all known chimpanzees in the state.
Hasn‘t This Been Done Before?
Not really, no. According to NhRP, “Over the years, thousands of lawsuits have been filed trying to protect the interests of animals, but the fundamental paradox plaguing all of these cases is that the legal system does not recognize that a nonhuman animal has the capacity for any legal right at all.”
In 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a lawsuit charging SeaWorld with violating the 13th amendment by enslaving orca whales. The judge ruled that the 13th amendment didn’t apply because orcas are not “persons,” and the case was thrown out. Some believed that even with the loss, the lawsuit was a victory because it brought attention to the issue. However, others criticized the move and believe it was grandstanding without a chance of being successful that set back the legal movement to gain personhood for nonhuman animals.
Wise explained that the problem following that decision was that it created another obstacle and that “anyone who brings a lawsuit of any kind and argues that a nonhuman animal is a ‘legal person’ is going to have to deal with the fact that a federal court has found that a nonhuman animal is NOT a person.”
A few other attempts have been made to grant rights to chimps and set them free, but were unsuccessful. The Spanish parliament approved a resolution that granted personhood to chimps in 2007, but it has yet to become a law.
According to the NhRP, the cases filed for these chimpanzees are the first of many that will be brought in the U.S. on behalf of captive animals who are scientifically proven to be self-aware, autonomous and capable of complex cognition, including four species of great apes, elephants and cetaceans.
Whatever the outcome, the lawsuits filed on behalf of nonhuman animals this week will be ones to remember. For a myriad of sentient creatures who come with biographies of their own and are capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions from fear and pain to loneliness, joy, companionship and love, the only rational response on our part is to reject their legal status as things and property. Hopefully the courts will agree.
Please sign our petition demanding the State Supreme Court in Fulton County, N.Y., to grant chimps legal personhood and the right to a healthy, happy life.
For more information and updates on the cases, visit the Nonhuman Rights Project.
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