Last year we discussed the sad news that Tommy the chimp had been turned away in an appellate branch of the New York State Supreme Court, having been told that he’s not a human being and is not entitled to the same rights and privileges of his homo sapien cousins. But if Tommy has any decent wifi access in his enclosure he may be cheering up a bit this morning after learning that two of his buddies have been granted legal rights in a different court. Yes, you heard that correctly. A Manhattan Supreme Court Justice has granted a write of habeas corpus to two chimpanzees.
The decision, says Science magazine, effectively recognizes chimps as legal persons, marking the first time in U.S. history that an animal has been given that right.
The order, dated April 20, requires Stony Brook University to appear in court and provide a legally sufficient reason for keeping the two chimps, Hercules and Leo. A hearing is scheduled for May 6.
The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), the group that filed the case on behalf of the chimps, said in a statement it believed that Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe’s order “implicitly determined that Hercules and Leo are ‘persons.’ “
This will go further up the chain in the legal system, no doubt, and I suspect that the ruling isn’t going to stand. As we discussed previously, any recognition by the courts of any other animal (or plant for that matter) which grants them rights equal to humans opens up a can of worms which could drown the world. Beyond the obvious observation that human rights apply to, well… humans, opponents in court have pointed out that the word “rights” is generally accompanied by “responsibilities” in such discussions. While chimps are remarkably intelligent and display emotions, the ability to communicate and even to construct and use weapons, (!) we can hardly argue that they are so intelligent and adapted to our society that they can be expected to follow a body of laws and bear responsibility if they go astray.
As I’ve said before, we bear a responsibility to not be excessively cruel and malicious towards animals, particularly those which we domesticate or keep under our care for any reason. The “smarter” or more emotionally attuned the animals are, the more strongly I feel that we owe them kindness and care. But at no point do I cross the line to make an argument in favor of “animal rights.” Rights are a human concept, as are responsibilities. In the case of chimpanzees I completely agree that they are remarkably intelligent and emotive. I don’t want to see them subjected to endless pain or locked up in tiny cages for their entire lives. But by the same token, people who are treating animals in an abusive fashion can be brought to heel under existing laws preventing cruelty without summoning some new set of rights for them out of thin air.
Habeas corpus for chimpanzees is an idea whose time has not yet come. And it probably should never come at all.