A New York Judge recently heard a case brought by an activist claiming that chimpanzees should be afforded the same legal rights as humans. Although Judge Barbara Jaffe ruled that they don’t possess any such rights, the opinion was a strange one, and it seems that she was initially inclined to grant them such rights but felt constrained by some pesky legal precedent to the contrary.
The case involved two research chimpanzees named Hercules and Leo. Lawyers for the Nonhuman Rights Project alleged that the chimps were entitled to rights that the legal system has previously recognized as applying only to humans. The lawyers asked for a writ of habeas corpus authorizing the transfer of the animals from captivity at a state university to an animal sanctuary in Florida. They argued that “because chimpanzees possess fundamental attributes of personhood in that they are demonstrably autonomous, self-aware, and self-determining and otherwise are very much like humans, ‘justice demands’ that they be granted fundamental rights of liberty and equality afforded to humans.”
Such a grant of rights would have marked a first for a court in the United States. Ultimately, the judge concluded that she was bound by an earlier ruling by a New York appellate court that held that chimps are not entitled to legal person status because of their inability to take on duties or responsibilities. However, Judge Jaffe suggested that the legal system was evolving on the issue just as it did in the debate over gay marriage. In so doing, she cited a handful of cases granting narrowly expanded rights to animals and stated that this was ultimately question of public policy.