During my third year of law school, I had the opportunity to study under Professor Steven Wise. As a former practitioner of veterinary medicine, Professor Wise’s animal jurisprudence class appealed to my curiosity and so I enrolled in the course. During the course, we had interesting discussions on the sources and characteristics of fundamental rights, such as the rights to bodily liberty and bodily integrity, afforded to us humans. We also examined the legal protections, or lack thereof, afforded for nonhuman animals and the problem of obtaining standing necessary to bring a lawsuit on behalf of a nonhuman animal.
In 2007, Professor Wise founded The Nonhuman Rights Project for the purpose of working towards establishing legal rights for nonhuman animals. And in December 2013, the project filed its first set of lawsuits attempting to reach this goal. The lawsuits were filed in three New York courts (Fulton, Niagra, and Suffolk counties) on the grounds that captive chimpanzees, Hercules, Kiko, Leo, and Tommy, are legal persons being illegally imprisoned.
Historically, animals have been considered property under the law and have no protected rights. However, these new lawsuits seek to allow the four chimpanzees the right to bodily liberty and thus to be free from the “imprisonment” of the laboratory where they are being held. The lawsuits seek to accomplish this task through a common law writ of habeas corpus.
Habeas corpus, Latin for “you have the body,” is a court order directing the persons who have custody of a prisoner to appear in court with the prisoner so that the judge can determine whether the prisoner is being lawfully imprisoned. Basically, a writ of habeas corpus is protection against illegal imprisonment or illegal confinement. The writ can be sought by anyone being imprisoned or by someone acting on behalf of the imprisoned individual. However, habeas corpus has never been applied to a nonhuman.
The Nonhuman Rights Project argues that chimpanzees should have common law rights because research has shown that they possess complex cognitive abilities akin to humans, such as autonomy, self-awareness, and empathy. They go on to say that because of these traits, chimpanzees should be considered legal persons and thus afforded protection of their common law rights to bodily liberty and bodily integrity. They argue further that corporations, ships, and other nonhuman entities are recognized as legal persons under the law when chimpanzees with all their similarities to humans are considered things, unrecognized by the courts.
Whether good or bad news, all three of the petitions for writ of habeas corpus were denied by the courts. One thing is for certain, this is a turning point for the animal rights movement; where in the past the focus has been on noneconomic damages for pets seems to now be refocusing towards changing their legal status altogether.