Distinguishing Between A Chimpanzee And A Legal Person

The debate concerning the rights of chimpanzees has been waging for numerous decades now. So why has the matter recently been reignited in the press? In a recent United States case, a judge in New York issued a ‘writ of habeas corpus’ for a case brought by animal rights activists on behalf of two chimpanzees. The effects of such a decision are potentially far-reaching. For the first time in US history, a judge has effectively granted two chimpanzees a petition, through human representatives, to defend their rights against unlawful imprisonment as ‘legal persons’.

The ancient concept of ‘habeas corpus’ – which is Latin for ‘you may have the body’ – is a writ requiring a person detained by authorities to be brought before a court of law so that the detention can be lawfully examined. The fact that the writ has been ordered by the court means that the institution currently holding the chimpanzees, Stony Brook University, will be legally required to respond to the activist’s petition in court.

Since the decision by the court was made, the judge struck the words ‘writ of habeas corpus’ from the order, in order to clarify that the court had not intended to imply that the chimpanzees had definitive ‘legal person’ status. Nevertheless, the fact that the university has been compelled to argue before the court about why the primates were being ‘unlawfully detained’ represents a significant advancement in the rights of non-humans.

Steven Wise, the chimpanzee’s representative who is leading the litigation, has consistently argued in the past that chimpanzees an intelligent, self-aware and emotionally complex enough to merit rights against cruel treatment and illegal detainment. The legal representatives for Stony Brook University however argue that primates do not classify as ‘legal persons’ and use a wealth of previous case law as authority. In one particular case, a failed attempt was made to remove another chimpanzee from captivity in New York, but the court argued that since they cannot participate in society and therefore subsequently cannot be held accountable for their actions, ‘legal person’ status could not be granted.

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