Update (April 22): The court has amended its order, removing the words “writ of habeas corpus.” Read more at Science .
Yesterday, a judge from New York’s Supreme Court granted two chimpanzees a writ of habeas corpus, effectively giving them a measure of legal standing that previously only applied to humans.
The writ came from the New York Supreme Court, which is hearing arguments in a lawsuit the Nonhuman Rights Project filed against Stony Brook University asking for the release of two chimpanzees involved in research into the evolutionary origins of bipedalism. The ruling compels representatives from Stony Brook to respond in court on May 6 to the Nonhuman Rights Project’s claim that two great apes, Hercules and Leo, are being “unlawfully detained.” Two other chimps, which are in private captivity, are involved in the lawsuit but weren’t named in the ruling.
While the ruling doesn’t grant chimpanzees personhood—a legal term that would give them the same rights as humans—it is a significant step that could lead to nonhuman animals gaining more legal standing. The lawsuit was filed a little over a year ago and has been working its way through the New York court system.
While the suit is far from over, the Nonhuman Rights Project is already viewing this legal action as a small victory. David Grimm interviewed Natalie Prosin, the group’s executive director, for Science:
Prosin says that even if NhRP loses the case, it will use the habeas corpus ruling to sway judges in other jurisdictions. “It strengthens our argument that these nonhuman animals are not property,” she says. The group plans to file another case—this one involving a captive elephant—by the end of the year, and has set its sights on other animals, including research animals, across the country. “We have the scientific evidence to prove in a court of law that elephants, great apes, and whales and dolphins are autonomous beings and deserve the right to bodily liberty,” she says.
However the Supreme Court rules, it likely won’t be the end of this lawsuit. In New York, the highest court is the Court of Appeals, meaning Hercules and Leo could be waiting a few more years before their fate is ultimately decided.
Photo credit: E_Monk/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)