Non-Human Persons?

Guest blog from Liz Tyson –Born Free’s consultant on Animals in Entertainment

Judge who granted chimpanzees, Leo and Hercules, “non-human person” status, reconsiders landmark ruling

On Monday, in a first-of-its-kind ruling anywhere in the world, the Manhattan Supreme Court granted an Order to show cause and writ of habeas corpus to two chimpanzees, Leo and Hercules, who are currently being used in biomedical research in the State of New York. The move was heralded as a significant step forward by the organisation which brought the chimps’ case before the court, The Non-Human Rights Project. Then, late yesterday, it was reported that the Judge had explicitly removed the “writ of habeas corpus” from the Order; much to the disappointment of animal advocates around the world.

So, what exactly does all this actually mean?

The principle of habeas corpus is quite simple; it is used when it is believed that the imprisonment of a person is unlawful and calls for that person to be brought before the court to have this point decided, one way or another.

Being granted writ of habeas corpus does not guarantee that the person in question will be set free, but it does allow for the case to be considered. The individual will then be released only if the court rules that the ongoing detention is unlawful and cannot be legally justified.

In recent years, animal advocates have attempted to use the principle of habeas corpus to challenge the imprisonment of non-human animals. Cases involving whales held in captivity, primates used in laboratories and, most recently, an orang-utan in an Argentinian zoo have all been brought before the courts, with varying degrees of success.

Most of the applications have been rejected by the courts but, in December last year, an orang-utan named Sandra who lives in an Argentinian zoo was allegedly granted writ of habeas corpus. However, on closer reading of the court judgment, legal experts were not convinced that this was in fact the court’s intention and Sandra currently remains in the zoo.

In contrast to the Argentinian case, yesterday’s ruling was initially clear: the legality of the ongoing imprisonment of the chimps will now be examined by the court and, if found that it is not legally justified, Leo and Hercules will be freed and transferred to a sanctuary where their needs can be better provided for.

But animals are transferred from labs to sanctuaries, from zoos to sanctuaries and from circuses to sanctuaries fairly regularly, so why is this particular case so important?

You might have noticed that habeas corpus applies to “persons”; a term that we normally associate with humans.  And it is this small word which may have made the world of difference; not just for Leo and Hercules, but for non-human animals all over the world.

In issuing the writ of habeas corpus, the court appeared to have recognised both Leo and Hercules as “persons”, and “persons” are generally recognised as having certain basic rights under the law. These include the right to bodily integrity and the right to liberty. Until this point, non-human animals had only ever been recognised as “property”; legally speaking classed as “things” rather than living, breathing, feeling individuals.  Sadly, it is the habeas corpus part of the Order which has now been reconsidered and removed; leaving advocates uncertain as to whether Leo and Hercules are indeed being considered “legal persons” or if the judge has had second thoughts on the potentially far-reaching implications of the original ruling.

Monday’s ruling in its original form had the potential to pave the way for the legal status of animals to change dramatically and, with it, shift the boundaries of how we humans can use animals for our own purposes. For example, a chimpanzee with personhood status could not be subjected to painful experiments while an orca with personhood status could not be held captive for entertainment in a small tank for his or her lifetime. The implications of recognising non-human animals as “persons” are huge, but it remains to be seen whether or not, in either its original or amended form, the Order will have the impact that animal advocates hope.

What is clear is that Leo and Hercules, whether recognised as “persons” or not, will have their day in court as the institution holding them still has to present just cause to the court, as originally ordered. It may be that, in practice, the exclusion of the habeas corpus element of the order has very little impact on what remains a landmark case in legal history. For now, we will be watching developments with great interest and we heartily congratulate all those involved in this important process.


6 Responses to “Non-Human Persons?”

  1. Christine Redding Says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this legal moment ever since I first understood that chimpanzees have the intellectual capacity to speak to us thoughtfully. Washoe, the first chimp taught American Sign Language, when introduced to someone, asked in sign for a cookie. The man didn’t understand, so Washoe signed her request again, slowly. (This was reported in a TV GUIDE article ~50 years ago.)

    How we regard the suffering of others is how our very humanity is defined. What we do about it makes our humanity meaningful. Law is one of the tools we’ve devised, clever apes that we are, to mitigate suffering, since we can’t all agree on where lines should be drawn. That question is made even murkier where human advantage is concerned.

  2. Karen Shenton Says:

    What reason did the Judge give for removing the writ?
    Looks like it smacks of peer pressure to me.As the saying goes ‘Opening a can of worms’.
    Most people would like to see NO performing animals.No animals used in laboratory tests for vanity.
    Research is a difficult area,regarding cures for major ,life threatening illnesses.

    This will be of concern to all people, all over the world, who have a hint of human decency.

  3. Karen Cartwright Says:

    Probably pressure or bribery from drug companies who have too much power, too much money, and too little care for anything but promoting false dreams through miracle cures in drugs that they claim must be tested on primates! This judge should be ashamed of himself but I am not surprised. he would have been given a generous cash gift! I just wish there was someone with the balls to want to be remembered for setting a new precedent based upon the facts and also on what is fundamentally and morally right. This judge obviously has either lost his or never grew them in the first place! I am 52 years old and grew up watching ads on TV about curing cancer! – nothing has changed – there is no cure – only drugs with horrific side effects which the chemists really only learn about in human trials -Most humans are so desperate to live they will take them with or without tests on animals – particularly primates. These drug companies are places of torture. They ‘grow’ cancer cells and place them in the tissue of a primate and then torture it with drug therapy , numerous surgical procedures and eventual euthanasia. This judge has just vetoed the continued ‘experiments’ on intelligent sentient beings that feel pain, fear and DO understand what is happening to them. I am disgusted.

  4. Mandy Says:

    So close and yet so far!! ( apologies to Jonny Matthis)
    Someone much more famous and clever than me said ( to paraphrase) that you can tell the real level of civilisation in a society by how it treats those at the bottom of that society.
    Well, I would have been pleased to recognise all sentient creatures .
    (( though I wonder if any action groups would start action over “pet” animals.
    I have a pet dog, she is vetted and well cared for, but she lives how I want her to live, not how she might choose to live. ( if she rolls in something smelly she has to stay in the kitchen , even if she wants to come in the lounge!) ))
    Still I would like to see (chimps) and Orca and all cetaceans left free in the oceans, and a halt to Ocean pollution

  5. Crystal Says:

    Stony Brook has retired chimpanzees and other apes from this lab to sanctuaries in the past, but they keep replacing them with younger ones.

  6. Joy Rosario Says:

    And what of the middle road between ‘persons’ and ‘things’ – that of sentient beings? Can the legal terminology for classifying living beings come into the 21st century?