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  • Bob Kohn

Animal Rights Activist Says Chimp is Legal "Person"

As one who could not be more sympathetic with the plight of animals suffering in captivity, I have been following with interest the work of attorney Steven Wise who filed a number of lawsuits to seek the release of several chimpanzees allegedly held under horrible conditions in various locations around New York State. What is striking about the lawyer's work, however, is not his laudable objectives, but the means by which he has chosen to achieve them.

His mission--as stated on the website of his Nonhuman Rights Project (NRP)--is "to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere 'things', which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to 'persons,' who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them."

To that end, the lawsuits are seeking writs of habeus corpus under NY law, specifically Section 7001(b) of Civil Practice Law & Rules, which allows "a person" who is "illegally imprisoned or otherwise restrained in his liberty within the state," or one acting on his behalf, to "petition without notice for a writ of habeas corpus to inquire into the cause of such detention and for deliverance."

The NRP is taking the position that the chimp, in each case, is a "person" for the purpose of the statute. This, obviously, is the movant's challenge. One New York trial judge summed up her ruling in a decision handed down on December 9, 2013:

"I'm not prepared to make this leap of faith and I'm going to deny the request for a petition for writ of habeas corpus."

The case is on appeal and this blog will follow the case closely. I'll have more to say as the case progresses, but suffice it to say, at this point, I believe the Judge was quite correct on legal grounds. A chimpanzee cannot be a 'person' under neither the common law nor the New York statutes.

The implications of holding otherwise are enormous--on both ethical and practical grounds. I'll endeavor to explain why soon.

In the meantime, it is hoped that he appellate levels of the judiciary will follow the trial court's lead and reject the notion that a non-human animal is a "person" under the law. Should the courts in doing so defer the question to the legislature, it is hoped that the legal definition of person is not expanded by statute to include non-humans.

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