Aspiring Defenders of Justice Should Acknowledge Chimpanzees as Legal People

Julie Bontems
Environmental Law Society

Hercules and Leo were born and raised without family, confined to a basement lab, drugged, prodded, and held in perpetual captivity in a research facility at the University of Louisiana. Hercules and Leo, two male chimpanzees, have never known freedom. Instead, these sensitive and highly intelligent beings have lived to serve human purposes since birth.

“These are autonomous beings, and the worst thing you can do to an autonomous being is to confine it, to deprive it of its bodily liberty,” said Kevin Schneider, Executive Director of the Non-human Rights Project (NhRP). Schneider’s organization hopes to relocate Hercules and Leo to a sanctuary where they would have space to move freely and interact with fellow chimps.

So, how do we protect these evolutionary relatives of ours from mistreatment? The answer may be the old common law writ of habeas corpus. Schneider and other attorneys at NhRP argue that chimpanzees should be granted legal personhood, which would compel courts to protect basic rights for these animals, including bodily liberty and autonomy.

Schneider and his colleagues are not arguing that chimpanzees are human people, nor that they possess the same emotional and mental capacities as humans. But legal “personhood” would entitle chimpanzees to certain rights which all humans enjoy, regardless of intellectual or emotional capacity.

Of course, the argument for granting legal personhood to nonhuman animals is novel, which may explain why courts hesitate to grant Hercules and Leo a victory. So far, the NhRP has suffered a series of defeats, with the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division First Department’s ruling against them on June 8th.

Some important legal minds oppose granting legal personhood to nonhumans. Professor Richard L. Cupp of Pepperdine University filed an amicus brief in opposition to NhRP, which the Court cited in its June 8th decision. Professor Richard Epstein, now of NYU Law School, has also publicly opposed granting legal personhood to chimpanzees, debating Steven Wise, founder and President of NhRP, on this very issue as early as 2000 on C-SPAN.

“There are many human advocates for animals, but no animals who can speak for themselves… in the end, people like Steven Wise want to stop medical experimentation on chimps – and I’m sympathetic to that – it doesn’t mean I think animals have rights,” said Epstein.

Beyond the legal debate, Hercules and Leo’s case highlights a pressing moral issue, especially as the public awakens to the intelligence of many non-human animals including chimpanzees, whales, and elephants. What separates a fully sentient, naturally autonomous animal from, say, an emotionally or intellectually stunted human being who is nevertheless fully deserving of bodily integrity and freedom?

“What is it about humans which entitles us to protection, but which excludes these animals from that protection, when you can absolutely prove scientifically that animals have remarkably complicated cognitive abilities?” posited Professor David Wolfson, adjunct at NYU Law and partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, and who has dedicated much of his pro bono career to animal advocacy.

For those of us who came to law school to protect the vulnerable, wrestling with this question should be a priority. As aspiring advocates for the most oppressed among us, we cannot limit our compassion to humans without serious inquiry into our preconceptions of the bases for rights and freedom – we cannot be advocates for justice without asking about Hercules and Leo.

One thought

  1. Any successful habeus petition would mean successive lawsuits drawn into federal question jurisdiction on either Takings or Dormant Commerce Clause grounds. At that point, you’d get a binding federal judgment against animal personhood. Wise’s camp is literally trying to break through to reach the bomb that will destroy their cause.

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