On Monday, December 2, 2013, the NYT reported that an animal rights group The Nonhuman Rights Project filed a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Tommy, a chimpanzee in Fulton County, N.Y. Although there are laws that protect animal welfare, this is the first time there has been an attempt to establish that a non-human animal has a right to some measure of “liberty.” The head of the Project is seeking to have New York recognize Tommy as a legal person. The Project says the chimp “is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used-trailer lot.” They are seeking to have the court place him in one of the several U.S. chimpanzee sanctuaries.
The NYT reports that the petition is supported by a “70-plus-page memo rich with legal, scientific and philosophical references” that argues that captive chimps are “enslaved”. The Project argues a chimp is not a possession, but a “cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.”
Although it seems doubtful that the court will find that habeas corpus applies to non-humans, Mr. Wise, the head of the Project makes several interesting points including 1) corporations are considered legal persons under the law; 2) animals are already considered legal persons because inheritance trusts can be set up for them; 3) scientific evidence has established that chimpanzees have an awareness of self, past and future; and 4) Chimps were granted certain legal rights by the Spanish Parliament in 2008.
It would seem that humanity is rushing headlong into a rights revolution. One wonders if animal rights are next up on the agenda? Granting rights to animals is however, the classic slippery slope. If a chimp has a right to liberty, will their owners become targets of civil rights claims? If a chimp has a right to live in “liberty” does that chimp suffer pain and suffering if injured and would he be entitled to compensatory damages? If chimpanzees have rights what about canines? A recent Nova episode on the evolution of dogs, demonstrated that dogs have superior intelligence to chimps in many fundamental areas. What about dolphins, parrots? I recently read that pigeons have extraordinary intelligence, although if they were self aware, I would think they would show more embarrassment.
If this case gains traction, there is surely a group of highly committed individuals who will “doggedly” seek to establish rights across a wide range of the animal spectrum. Insurance underwriters might want to start reassessing this Brave New World and start drafting Animal Farm endorsements.