'Unlawfully detained' chimpanzees have their day in court

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated 1 June 2015

Over tea and cakes in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter quizzed Alice: ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?‘ The key to this famously unsolvable riddle may lie in a New York courtroom, where a historic battle is being fought to decide the difference between an inanimate object, and a living creature. The result could be a game-changer for animals everywhere

Why is a chair like a chimpanzee? Now, most people would say they can’t see any similarity at all! One is a manmade construction — the other is a thinking, breathing, living being. But in the eyes of the law both a chair and a chimpanzee are merely things, without legal rights. They are defined as objects, tools to use — and potentially abuse — in any way humans see fit.

Can you spot the difference?

A couple of young chimpanzees, named Hercules and Leo, are two of the things at the heart of a historic legal case currently running in the United States between animal lawyers at the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), and Stony Brook University — which keeps the two chimps for experimental purposes. The Director of NhRP, Steven Wise, has recently had a breakthrough in his fight for the ‘unlawfully detained’ chimpanzees, with a Judge agreeing to hear the case — and describing the bid for Hercules and Leo’s freedom as ‘extremely interesting and well argued‘.

Given that courts have previously granted personhood status to corporations and ships (and even a river in New Zealand!) the question at the very heart of Hercules & Leo’s case is what makes a person a person? Being human clearly isn’t a prerequisite, so perhaps the best criteria is that offered by a 19th Century British Philosopher who discussed the very ideas being argued in courts today:

"The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?'"
- Jeremy Bentham

This answer to that last question seems self-evident: time and again we’ve exposed the ability of animals to suffer and feel pain — both overseas, and at home. But we’ve also shared the tremendous capacity non-human animals have to play, to solve problems, and to be loyal and loving — which is all far more than the river with personhood in New Zealand is capable of!

Freedom or slavery for Hercules & Leo?

If the court rules in favour of Hercules and Leo, they’ll be free to spend the rest of their lives at Save the Chimps — a sanctuary in Florida — where dozens of rescued primates live on small islands covered with rich grassy lawns and lush jungle. Such a ruling would reverberate around the world, setting a landmark precedent that could have ramifications for other nonhuman animals.

But if the court rules against the chimpanzees, and decides they’re not persons and just things, they’ll most likely die in captivity, in the bowels of Stony Brook University.

"To enslave an autonomous, and self-determining being … is a violation of equality."
- Director of Nonhuman Rights Project, Steven Wise

Imprisonment is a grim fate that humans ordinarily reserve for criminals — but the only crime here is the failure to legally recognise Hercules and Leo as self-aware individuals.

Primates: our closest living genetic relatives.

Legal rights for animals?

Opponents of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s quest to achieve personhood — and freedom — for Hercules and Leo, claim that it will create a ‘slippery slope’ that could result in other species of animals being granted legal rights.

But legal rights for animals isn’t the crazy idea Stony Brooks lawyers would have us believe it is. At the very least, such laws could outlaw cruel practices such as performing surgical procedures on farmed animals without pain relief, and the sever confinement of hens in battery cages and mother pigs in metal crates.

If the legal personhood being fought for Hercules and Leo in the United States right now was one day granted to other self-aware beings, billions of sensitive and intelligent animals — such as pigs and chickens — who are traditionally categorised as food might enjoy a very different kind of life. At the very least, we may begin to think differently about the idea of sitting down to a Christmas dinner of stuffed breast and honey-glazed leg — of person!

Hercules and Leo’s case was heard at the New York County Supreme Court, on May 27th, 2015 — and Judge Barbara Jaffe will present her verdict within a month. It’s no small weight upon the Judge’s shoulders: her decision has the potential to re-shape the future for animals all over the world. Stay tuned for the outcome…


Animals aren’t things — speak up for them today!


The primates pictured at the top of the page are from a file photograph. A picture of Hercules and Leo is currently unavailable as Stony Brook University have yet to officially admit they are in possession of the chimpanzees.

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