In December 2013 the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) created a media stir by filing writs of habeas corpus on behalf of four chimpanzees living in different counties in New York state. A nonprofit organization seeking to establish legal rights for other species, the NhRP was inspired by the highly studied and variably interpreted English case Somerset v. Stewart (1772), in which James Somerset, a man captured in Africa and sold into slavery, was freed as a result of a habeas corpus writ filed on his behalf by anti-slavery campaigners. NhRP attorneys sought to do the same for the chimpanzees.
The cases on behalf of the chimpanzees were dismissed, but the group filed appeals. In response to one of the appeals, a judge in Manhattan last week ordered a hearing in which a representative of the State University of New York at Stony Brook must appear in court to show whether Leo and Hercules, two 8-year-old chimpanzees held in a laboratory on campus, are being lawfully detained.
Used in locomotion research, the two are owned by New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, where Hercules’ parents, Twyla and Blue, as well as his paternal grandmother, Jessica, are being held. Leo’s mother, Mindy, is also there; his father Apollo died there in 2012. Fortunately, both of Leo’s paternal grandfathers, Backus and Julius, were retired to a sanctuary.
Chimpanzees are socially and emotionally sophisticated animals that live very long lives, sometimes up to 50 to 60 years. Cognitive and observational research (PDF) has shown that they are self-aware; they plan, use imagination, make tools and teach their young to use tools. They laugh and play and trick each other. They have very good memories, and they mourn those who die. They have a wide range of emotions, and they communicate with one another; some have even been taught to communicate using sign language and other human-created symbolic languages. Researchers have established that chimpanzees understand that others have thoughts and emotions too. Because they share such a wide range of capacities with humans, the NhRP filed writs of habeas corpus to establish that chimpanzees have all the qualities of legal people and should have their day in court.
That day is scheduled for May 27, 2015.
In our legal system, chimpanzees and all other nonhuman animals are classified as property — a status that does not allow for representation in any court of law. The legal system has only two categories for distinguishing between beings: person or property. That a hearing is being held to determine whether Leo and Hercules are being lawfully detained marks a major shift in legal thinking about other animals that has made animal advocates hopeful.
But there is reason to be cautious here. In turning to the law to develop the case for personhood beyond the human, I worry about the possibility of overlooking certain others — some humans and many nonhumans — who are differently abled such that they aren’t seen as similar to those human people who occupy the center. Perhaps cats or humans who have suffered brain injuries aren’t as cognitively advanced as chimpanzees and most adult humans. Setting a precedent that exalts a certain set of cognitive skills may become problematic. Historically, this othering has been a necessary part of the legal framework around personhood.
While there are different kinds of rights that legal people have, rights are placeholders for claims we make against one another. They are used to protect us from the encroachment of others. Our legal system sees rights holders at odds with one another, with courts designed to adjudicate between people’s rights. But that is a fairly grim view of how we interact with one another in our communities. This framework, in which we have to protect ourselves from others, may serve to reinforce a relatively dark view of our relationships with one another and with other animals. We end up focused on what we can extract from one another or how we can protect what we have rather than on how we might work together to improve one another’s lives.
If we were instead to focus on what we owe one another and other animals, our relationships become more central. Our roles in promoting or hindering another animals’ well-being becomes a source of ethical concerns. Almost all our actions and decisions affect other animals in a variety of ways. Whether they live or die, whether their offspring have any future, whether their habitats will continue to exist depend on what we buy, what we eat, even whom we vote for. No one wants to be in an abusive relationship. Thinking about the ways we are connected to other animals and what we owe them can help improve those relationships.