Bodily Liberty Rights for Nonhuman Animals

Humans and chimpanzees share almost 99 percent of their DNA. Chimpanzees demonstrate purposeful communication, understanding of symbols, imagination, and even humor. Like humans, chimpanzees are autonomous and self-determining beings. They recall their past and anticipate their future, and when their future is incarceration, they suffer the pain of being unable to fulfill their goals or move around as they wish.

But unlike humans, including the permanently comatose, chimpanzees have no legal rights whatsoever. Instead, they are “things.” If an entity is not a “thing,” it is a “person.” Persons have the capacity for at least one legal right. “Things” have no rights. “Legal personhood” determines who counts, who lives, who dies, who is enslaved, and who is free.

There is a common misconception that our legal system already embraces “animal rights”—a term associated with the Animal Welfare Act enacted in 1966 and state law equivalents. But such laws only offer minimal protection to some nonhuman animals and, more importantly, do not change their status as mere “things” in the eyes of a law.

Many of us know that “legal person” is not synonymous for “human being.” Personhood status has been granted to corporations and ships, and in other countries, religious idols and even a river. Personhood is not a biological concept. As Justice John Paul Stevens aptly observed in his Citizens United dissent: “Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires.”

At the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), we are seeking to change the status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere “things” to “persons” who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, along with other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.

In 2013, we filed three petitions for writs of habeas corpus in New York on behalf of four chimpanzees: Tommy, Kiko, Hercules, and Leo. Nine prominent primatologists from around the world submitted expert affidavits in support of our habeas petitions, demonstrating that chimpanzees possess the autonomy and self-determination that allow them to choose how they will live their own emotionally, socially, and intellectually rich lives.

Habeas corpus (in Latin, “you have the body”) is a legal remedy that enables an imprisoned individual to challenge the legality of his or her imprisonment. If unlawful, the person must immediately be set free, or, in the case of minor children and mentally incompetent adults, be released into the custody of another. In our case, we ask that the chimpanzees be released to a large sanctuary in Florida called Save the Chimps.

In April 2015, for the first time in history, a judge issued an order to show cause on behalf of a nonhuman animal. Specifically, a New York Supreme Court granted NhRP’s petition and ordered a state research facility to explain what legal right it has, if any, to be detaining Hercules and Leo. Justice Barbara Jaffe’s April 20, 2015, order was unprecedented. It was the first time a court decided that nonhuman animals are entitled to a hearing to determine whether they should be considered legal persons with the right to be free from unlawful detention.

On May 27, attorney Steven Wise, president and founder of NhRP, argued that Hercules and Leo should be granted the right to bodily liberty.  “The way we treat Hercules and Leo is the way we treat our worst human criminals,” Wise told Jaffe. Countering the New York Assistant Attorney General’s argument that there is no legal precedent, Jaffe remarked that such is the essence of the common law—it “evolves according to new discoveries and social mores.” She opined: “Isn’t it incumbent on judiciaries to at least consider whether a class of beings may be granted a right?”

Regardless of the outcome, NhRP has already achieved a legal victory by opening the door to personhood rights for some nonhuman animals. And we already see a shift in the public’s perception, evidenced by the unbiased media coverage of NhRP lawsuits, including by Fox News, Reuters, and NBC New York.

NhRP’s two other cases in New York were summarily dismissed without an adversarial hearing. On appeal, two intermediate appellate courts ruled, on different grounds, that Tommy and Kiko were not “persons” for the purpose of habeas corpus. We appealed both rulings to New York’s highest court, which will soon determine whether to take the appeals. Renowned legal scholar Laurence H. Tribe submitted an amicus curiae “letter-brief” in support of the appeal, asserting that the lower court “reached its conclusion on the basis of a fundamentally flawed definition of legal personhood.” The Center for Constitutional Rights recently submitted a letter-brief in support of NhRP’s appeal as well.

A friend asked me whether it was paradoxical that I work as an attorney for both the American Humanist Association and the Nonhuman Rights Project. Besides semantics, the answer is no. Just turn to the second paragraph of the Humanist Manifesto III, which states that humanism is “inspired by compassion” and recognizes that values “are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.”

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