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  • Bob Kohn

Hearing Held in NY State Court on Personhood for Chimps

Yesterday, I attended the appellate hearing in the case of Nonhuman Rights Project v. Tommy, a suit filed by the NRP to free a chimp from captivity by means of a writ of habeus corpus. The NRP is taking the position that chimps are legal "persons" entitled to "bodily liberty." I filed an amicus brief in opposing the writ on legal, practical and ethical grounds. Attended by the press and a few animal rights enthusiasts, yesterday's court hearing was best summarized in Wired, Salon, and the London Telegraph.

My take is that the appellate court will issue an opinion that is highly sympathetic to the plight of mistreated animals, but will reject NRP's attempt to lift chimpanzees into the realm of personhood to achieve that end.

As mentioned in my amicus brief, summarized here, there is no practical need to grant personhood in order to give animals the protection they deserve. New York State law already allows police and qualified animal rights organizations to rescue animals who are being confined in a "crowded or unhealthful condition." See Sec. 373(2) of the Agriculture & Markets Law.

By the same token, granting personhood to nonhuman animals would raise serious practical problems (not to mention the ethical problems also raised in my brief). How would the courts circumscribe the scope of such rights in each case? How would the courts determine in each case whether the cage to which the animal is moved is sufficient to protect the animals "rights" as a person? Would this decision be more suited for legislative action and police enforcement? Would "bodily liberty," which is what the NRP is seeking for Tommy, protect animals against assault or abuse? Training? Sale? What other animals would be granted these rights and why?

Steven Wise, attorney for NRP, argued that chimps deserved to be treated like persons, because the animals are "self-determined and autonomous." But, as I said to Wired, "If you’re going to give a nonhuman animal rights for being autonomous, then why don’t you give a robot rights for being autonomous as well?"

Mr. Wise, a well-intentioned animal rights advocate, made an admirable attempt to answer these questions, but I don't believe the court will provide any of them persuasive. For a more detailed analysis of the case, including the ethical issues it raises, please see my amicus brief.

The hearing was held in the appellate division of New York state court and a decision is expected in a few weeks. Should NRP's writ be rejected, the group is likely to appeal to New York State's highest court.

Nonhuman rights
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