UPDATE: According to Science Magazine, the judge who made this decision has just amended the court order, removing the crucial phrase "writ of habeas corpus." That means for the time being, any indication about whether or not chimpanzees have legal personhood has been stricken from the record.
In a potentially huge, watershed moment for proponents of "nonhuman personhood," two research chimpanzees were just given a form of legal recognition usually reserved only for people. It's the first time this has ever happened in the United States.
By issuing a writ of habeas corpus to two research animals, a judge is essentially granting caged chimps the same privilege as a human prisoner yelling "I demand my day in court!"
The ruling comes from New York Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe, and says that on May 6, Stony Brook University must respond in court to the petition filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project. The petition argues that by keeping the chimps, Hercules and Leo, in cages, Stony Brook is unlawfully detaining them, and they should be moved to an animal sanctuary.
Related: For more on the lives of caged animals watch our documentary about the exotic animal trade.
This has been a long time coming. Legal scholar Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project told us last year that he and other activist lawyers have been building up to a case like this since at least December of 2013. Their lawsuit on behalf of a chimp named Tommy was thrown out of court last year.
When he spoke to VICE, Wise pointed to the 94 percent genetic similarity we share with Pan troglodytes. He also noted their intelligence, which in some ways matches a human toddler's, but in other ways exceeds that of human adults.
Wise's organisation isn't downplaying the potential significance of this ruling. Natalie Prosin, their executive director, told Science Magazine, "We got our foot in the door. And no matter what happens, that door can never be completely shut again."
Being heard in court about unjust imprisonment is one person-y right that this particular judge thinks these chimps do have, but she's not necessarily releasing them. Richard Cupp, an outspoken opponent of the whole chimps-are-people thing told Science Magazine that by granting the writ, the judge isn't making a broad statement about personhood, but instead, attempting to hear both sides of the story in court.
With different kinds of animal cruelty opponents now in opposition to each other on this issue, the arguments are about to start getting interesting. Cupp wrote about animal rights in The New York Times last year, arguing that in curbing cruelty to animals, we should focus on human responsibility, rather than arguing about animals having "rights" at all.
But Steven Wise's position when he spoke to VICE wasn't that all animals should immediately be granted rights, just that animals' legal needs should be evaluated on a being-by-being basis. Legal personhood for Tommy, the chimp he was talking about at the time, just meant acknowledging "the right of bodily liberty – that he would be able to physically move around."
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