A New York judge today granted a pair of lab animals from Stony Brook University the right to have their day in court. It is a decision that seems to recognize chimpanzees as legal persons for the first time.
Specifically the ruling marks the first time in U.S. history that an animal has been covered by a writ of habeas corpus, which allows human prisoners to challenge their detention. The action could force the university, which is holding the chimps, to release the primates. The ruling could also sway additional judges to do the same with other research animals.
“This is a big step forward to getting what we are ultimately seeking: the right to bodily liberty for chimpanzees and other cognitively complex animals,” says Natalie Prosin, the executive director of the animal rights organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP). Her organization filed the case on behalf of the captive primates. “We got our foot in the door. And no matter what happens, that door can never be completely shut again.”
The case began in December 2013 with a salvo of lawsuits filed by NhRP . The organization claimed that four New York chimps — Hercules and Leo at Stony Brook, and two other animals on private property — were too "cognitively and emotionally complex to be held in captivity and should be relocated to an established chimpanzee sanctuary".
NhRP petitioned three lower court judges with a writ of habeas corpus, traditionally used to prevent people from being unlawfully imprisoned. By granting the writ, the judges would have implicitly acknowledged that chimpanzees were legal people, too — a first step in freeing them.
The judges struck down each case, however, and NhRP has been appealing since. Today’s decision is the group’s first major victory.
In her ruling, New York Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe ordered a representative of Stony Brook University to appear in court on May 6th to respond to NhRP’s petition that the animals “are being unlawfully detained” and should be immediately moved to sanctuary.