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Research Chimps Get Their Day In Court In New York

Should chimps have the same legal rights as these lawyers? Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Foundation, who is representing research chimps Hercules and Leo, says yes. Assistant Attorney General Christopher Coulston disagrees. They both made their arguments Wednesday in Manhattan State Supreme Court in New York. i

Should chimps have the same legal rights as these lawyers? Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Foundation, who is representing research chimps Hercules and Leo, says yes. Assistant Attorney General Christopher Coulston disagrees. They both made their arguments Wednesday in Manhattan State Supreme Court in New York. Richard Drew/AP hide caption

toggle caption Richard Drew/AP
Should chimps have the same legal rights as these lawyers? Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Foundation, who is representing research chimps Hercules and Leo, says yes. Assistant Attorney General Christopher Coulston disagrees. They both made their arguments Wednesday in Manhattan State Supreme Court in New York.

Should chimps have the same legal rights as these lawyers? Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Foundation, who is representing research chimps Hercules and Leo, says yes. Assistant Attorney General Christopher Coulston disagrees. They both made their arguments Wednesday in Manhattan State Supreme Court in New York.

Richard Drew/AP

Two research chimps got their day in court — though they weren't actually present in the courtroom.

Steven Wise, an attorney with the Nonhuman Rights Project, told Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Barbara Jaffe that Hercules and Leo, the 8-year-old research chimps at Stony Brook University on Long Island, are "autonomous and self-determining beings" who should be granted a writ of habeas corpus, which would effectively recognize them as legal persons. The chimps, he argued, should be moved from the university to a sanctuary in Florida.

But Christopher Coulston, an assistant state attorney general representing the university, called the case meritless. The Associated Press reports that he said granting chimps personhood would create, in the words of the AP, "a slippery slope regarding the rights of other animals."

"The reality is these are fundamentally different species," Coulston said. "There's simply no precedent anywhere of an animal getting the same rights as a human."

Jaffe, the AP adds, didn't make a ruling Wednesday but called the proceeding "extremely interesting and well argued."

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reported on the story Wednesday for our Newscast unit. He says:

"Past judges have struck down this lawsuit since it was first filed in 2013. But the current judge at the Manhattan Supreme Court is ordering the university to defend why it's detaining the chimps."

As we reported last month, Jaffe briefly granted Hercules and Leo a writ of habeus corpus before amending her ruling. New York courts have previously declined to extend habeas corpus to two other chimps, Tommy and Kiko, and the Nonhuman Rights Project has appealed those decisions.

Science, which has been following this story, provides the legal background:

"The case began as a salvo of lawsuits filed by NhRP in December of 2013. The group claimed that four New York chimpanzees — Hercules and Leo at Stony Brook, and two others on private property — were too cognitively and emotionally complex to be held in captivity and should be relocated to an established chimpanzee sanctuary. NhRP petitioned three lower court judges with a writ of habeas corpus, which is traditionally used to prevent people from being unlawfully imprisoned. By granting the writ, the judges would have implicitly acknowledged that chimpanzees were legal people too — a first step in freeing them."

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