New Lawsuits Seek to Grant Chimps And Highly Self-Aware Animals ‘Legal Persons’ Status


[UPDATED: Jan. 14, 2015; see UPDATE NOTE below] On Monday morning, December 2, an animal rights group called the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed a lawsuit in the Supreme court of New York. The goal of the lawsuit — the first of three planned —  is to persuade the court that chimpanzees (and other highly self-aware animals, like dolphins and elephants) are “legal persons” and that all such animals should be freed from captivity, which the group equates with torture.

The lawsuit — actually a petition of the court for a writ of habeas corpus —  was filed on behalf of four currently captive chimps: two privately owned chimps and two research chimps currently housed at Stony Brook University. A writ of habeas corpus allows a person being held captive to challenge their detention in court.

The legal action taken by NhRP is the first in a planned series of legal actions to grant “legal personhood” status to a variety of captive animals throughout the US, and would apply to privately owned animals, animals held in captivity for entertainment purposes (such as dolphins and Orca whales and most circus animals), and even animals used in medical and scientific research.

Critics and supporters of Animal Welfare laws alike worry that the lawsuit, if it succeeds, would not just overturn long-standing law defining animals as property, but would set off a chain reaction throughout other jurisdictions, potentially “crippling” medical and scientific research.

On the other hand, if the lawsuit fails, it could be a major setback for the animal rights movement. However, NhRP has stated that it would immediately appeal any unfavorable ruling.

Background on the Push for ‘Legal Personhood’ for Animals

NhRP was founded in 2007 by animal rights attorney Steven Wise. The group is an association of some sixty lawyers, scientists and “policy experts” who maintain that some animals are “cognitively advanced” (e.g., chimps and other large primates, dolphins, and elephants), granting them a degree of self-awareness nearly on par with humans. Thus, group members argue, keeping them in captivity — be it in a zoo or in a lab — is the equivalent of slavery (note: this claim is actually founded upon the 1772 case of a black UK slave named James Somerset, in which the English judge acknowledged that Somerset was not a piece of property, but a person, and had him set free. The case became the legal foundation for the later Abolitionist movement)

In an interview with Science magazine (see link, below), Wise commented:

“It’s a terrible torture we inflict on them, and it has to stop…And all of human law says the way things stop is when courts and legislatures recognize that the being imprisoned is a legal person.”

Since its founding in 2007, the group has been conducting research to determine the best strategy  to accomplish its goals (including the most probably favorable jurisdiction in which to file). The resulting strategy (for this current effort) will be a total of three lawsuits filed in three separate trial courts in the same week of behalf of four “resident” (i.e., living in NY State) chimps.

One of these chimps, named Tommy, is privately owned and, according to a NhRP press release, is kept in a “used trailer lot … isolated in a cage in a dark shed.” The second privately owned chimp is named Kiko and lives in a cage on private property near Niagara Falls. The other two chimps named in the lawsuits — Hercules and Leo — are both research chimps at Stony Brook University.

To date, 11 scientists who have worked with non-human primates — including Jane Goodall — have filed affidavits supporting the group’s claims.

The Impact on Scientific Research

Any ruling supporting this or subsequent lawsuits (and/or their appeals) will have major bearing on research animals throughout the US.

Susan Larson, an anatomist at Stony Brook who works with the chimps, expressed shock over news of the pending lawsuits. Her research focuses on the origins of bipedalism in humans and, chimps being our closest primate relative, are ideal for this research. The chimps live in an enclosure comprised of three interconnected rooms, one of which is set up for climbing and hanging and allows the chimps to jump from ladders and tree trunks .

In the same Science Magazine interview, Larson stated:

“Everything I do with these animals I’ve done on myself,” she says. “I understand that animal rights activists don’t want these animals mistreated, but they’re hampering our ability to study them before they become extinct.”

Meanwhile, the  National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR),  located in Washington, D.C., has voiced its intent to oppose any attempts to grant research animals “personhood” on the grounds that chimps are crucial models for behavioral research and for developing vaccines against human diseases, such as hepatitis C.  According to NABR president Frankie Trull:

 “Assigning rights to animals akin to what humans have would be chaotic for the research community.”

However, the pending lawsuits are not the most immediate challenge to on-going chimp research. This past June, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced its plans to retire all but 50 of its 360 research chimpanzees. The NIH also plans to phase out funding/support for most of its current chimp research efforts.  Additionally, the US fish & Wildlife Service has recommended to Congress that all captive chimps be listed as endangered. This designation would limit any research “not in the best interest” of the animal. These policies and positions — if fully implemented — will  drastically curtail all but the most critical of research efforts, and would effectively end behavioral research projects such as those conducted at Stony Brook (unless non-invasive research were given special exemption).

Is A Compromise Possible?

Chimpanzees have been utilized in human scientific research, including a large number of both valid an questionable medical experiments, for many decades. Chimpanzees also played a crucial role in the final testing of space flight conditions leading up to the first manned US space flights (see image: below right: Enos the space chimp before being inserted into the Mercury-Atlas 5 capsule in 1961. Another chimp, Ham, was the first chimp, and largest animal, to go into space).

Animal Welfare and Conservation advocates — who acknowledge that primates and cetacea are social animals and should not be held captive in isolation from others of their kind — are hoping for an acceptable compromise [image – lower, right: Enos, the second chimp sent into space, 1961]

NASAchimpStephen Ross, current director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes (at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois), is one such advocate for compromise. Ross actually helped write the NIH’s new policy on research chimps and advocates ending all private ownership and all invasive research (note: presumably, this includes experiments in which the animal is given a contagious disease, or a test vaccine prior to  exposure to said disease). But Ross stops should of conferring legal personhood status to our fellow primates. While strongly advocating large enclosures with unrestricted outdoor access and group sizes of seven or more individuals (thus supporting the social nature of primates), Ross says:

“You don’t need personhood to do that. I think we share a common philosophy (referring to NhRP). We want to make things better for chimps. We just disagree on how to get there.”

Meanwhile, NhRP is not letting up; the group is already preparing similar litigation in other States, but with a broader scope to include both research animals and any animals living in a confined space (such as in zoos and aquariums). Says Wise:

 “Gorillas, orangutans, elephants, whales, dolphins—any animal that has these sorts of cognitive capabilities, we would be comfortable bringing suit on behalf of…No matter how these first cases turn out, we’re going to move onto other cases, other states, other species of animals. We’re going to file as many lawsuits as we can over the next 10 or 20 years.”

The clash between the scientific need for test animals and the natural rights and dignity of animals is not restricted to the West; in India, for example, there is an on-going fight over the place of animals in scientific research stemming from the nation’s deep cultural-religious values.

Source material (including all quotes) for this post came from the Science Insider article: ‘Lawsuits Could Turn Chimpanzees Into Legal Persons’ by David Grimm

UPDATE NOTE (Jan. 14, 2015]: In early December, 2014, a New York appellate court rejected the lawsuit by the NhRP in which it sought to grant ‘legal personhood’ status to four chimpanzees (two of which were are research animals). In other animal rights news, the nation of Argentina has officially granted ‘human-like’ rights to a hybrid orangutan living at the Buenos Aires Zoo; see: the Scientific American story.

Top Photo: (Gregoire: 62-year-old chimpanzee, in a cage at the Jane Goodall sanctuary of Tchimpounga in Congo Brazzaville); credit: Delphine Bruyère ; CC – By – SA 3.0

Bottom photo: (Enos, space chimp) PD-USGOV-NASA.

2 thoughts on “New Lawsuits Seek to Grant Chimps And Highly Self-Aware Animals ‘Legal Persons’ Status”

  1. Does this mean they will have the protections of the Bill of Rights? Can monkeys buy guns now? That might actually be a bad thing as most are terrible shots. Anyway…

  2. Does this mean they will have the protections of the Bill of Rights? Can monkeys buy guns now? That might actually be a bad thing as most are terrible shots. Anyway…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top