If Non-Human Corporations can be Protected by Habeas Corpus, Why can’t Chimpanzees?

Friday, May 29, 2015
(photo: WildlifeDirect)

Animals rights advocates argued before a New York County Supreme Court judge this week that if the writ of habeas corpus can be applied to corporations, which it has, then why not apply it to chimpanzees being used for medical research?


The case (pdf) was brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project, which seeks to free two chimps, Hercules and Leo, from Stony Brook University. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Steven Wise, argued the right of habeas corpus can and should apply to complex cognitive species like chimps. Never before has a U.S. court considered granting legal protection to primates from being “unlawfully detained.”


Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Barbara Jaffe heard the case after two New York state appellate courts denied habeas relief to Hercules and Leo.


Jaffe asked New York assistant attorney general Christopher Coulston, who is representing the university, whether chimps also deserved a “right, or something short of a right, under the habeas statute.”


“Isn't that an appropriate use of this 'Great Writ'?” Jaffe asked, according to Courthouse News Service.


Wise also pointed out that detainees have won the right to use habeas corpus to challenge their indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay—a move opposed by some in legal and government circles. He even compared the fates of Hercules and Leo to African Americans held under slavery.


“It’s not to protect human beings,” Wise said, referring to the writ. “It’s to protect autonomy.”


“Chimps are autonomous and self-determined beings,” Wise continued. ”They are not governed by instinct. They are self-conscious. They have language, they have mathematics, they have material and social culture. They are the kinds of beings who can remember the past and plan for the future.” Such attributes in human begins, said Wise, are considered grounds for being free.


Coulston rejected the slavery argument, calling it a legal slippery slope that could open the “floodgates” for other challenges by animal rights proponents.


Jaffe is expected to make a ruling in the case sometime this summer. Should she side with the plaintiffs, it could very well preclude the premise of the “Planet of the Apes” movies from ever becoming reality.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Unprecedented Hearing on Habeas for Chimps (by Adam Klasfeld, Courthouse News Service)

Chimpanzee Rights Get a Day in Court (by Brandon Keim, Wired)

Nonhuman Rights Project v. Samuel Stanley (New York Supreme Court) (pdf)

2 Chimpanzees Gain Right to Challenge their Imprisonment at University in New York (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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