Do chimpanzees deserve legal personhood? A “first of its kind” lawsuit will ask a court to answer that question. Steven Wise, founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, has filed a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of four chimpanzees.

I will now pause while James Franco auditions for the role of Steven Wise.

I’m not sure what rights chimpanzees (or pets) deserve in our human society — but “zero” seems to me to be the wrong and certainly unenlightened answer. Wise argues that the chimps are being held as prisoners against their will. I don’t think anybody can seriously disagree with that assessment.

But if chimps have a “will,” do they also have rights that we are bound to respect?

I don’t think there’s any question that chimpanzees are held in conditions unbecoming of thinking, feeling creatures. From the Huffington Post:

Brought with Wise’s group — the Nonhuman Rights Project, dedicated to advancing legal personhood for animals — these suits cover what are now believed to be the Empire State’s four captive chimpanzees: two who are being used in locomotion studies at SUNY Stony Brook; a former performing chimpanzee now housed near Niagara Falls; and a former film actor, Tommy, who is to be the first plaintiff. Wise states in court filings that Tommy is 26 years old and alleged to be living in “solitary confinement in a small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed” at a trailer sales business in upstate New York.

In Tommy’s suit, filed on Monday against owners Patrick and Diane Lavery and Circle L Trailer Sales, Wise argues that because chimpanzees are “autonomous, self-determined, self-aware, intelligent, and emotionally complex” beings who cognitively “resemble human beings,” they must be declared legal persons with rights by the court — and as such, freed from captivity.

Wise argues that the definition of legal personhood has never been limited to… people:

“Legal person” has never been a synonym for “human being.” It designates Western law’s most fundamental category by identifying those entities capable of possessing a legal right. “Legal personhood” determines who counts, who lives, who dies, who is enslaved, and who is free. A being, such as Tommy, who possesses autonomy, self-determination, self-awareness, and the ability to choose how to live his life, must be recognized as a common law “person” in New York, entitled to the common law right to bodily liberty protected by the common law writ of habeas corpus.

Well, that’s an argument. I wouldn’t be surprised if a New York judge throws feces at that argument, but it’s an argument.

Wise isn’t arguing that chimpanzees should be given the full rights of humans, and that’s where this lawsuit begins to make sense. Whatever you think of the cognitive abilities and emotions of chimps, I think we can all agree that they are different from, say, chairs. They’re different from cars. Treating these animals as mere property is simply wrong.

We do, of course, have a class of persons in this country who don’t have maximum rights but are more than mere property. They’re called “children,” and most of them have considerably less intelligence than a chimpanzee. So there is precedent for extending legal protection to “human-like” creatures who throw poop and change the channel during the last two minutes of a football game.

Would “animal court” be the worst thing in the world? Couldn’t we get some law professors to bang out an “animal bill of rights” that would be more robust than existing bans on animal cruelty? Would Congress break down along party lines over defining such rights? I fail to see how keeping a chimpanzee locked in solitary confinement in a cement cage advances any goals of “small government” advocates.

My thought is that this won’t happen through the courts. I don’t think there’s a fair interpretation of current law that can release New York chimpanzees from bondage. But there’s no reason lawmakers can’t tackle this. Chimps don’t vote, but maybe the recognition of this legal problem will inspire some politicians to act.

Chimpanzees Sue For Their Freedom (With A Little Human Help) [Huffington Post]


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