Judge Denies Chimps Legal Rights

September 4, 2015 | Gillian Burrell

A chimpanzee in the hay
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In July, a landmark case concluded with a judge ruling that Hercules and Leo, two research chimps, are property, not people.

Research chimpanzees are “are considered property under the law,” New York State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe wrote in a decision earlier this year (July 30), The New York Times reported. As such, she continued, “they are accorded no legal rights.”

The case was brought to the courts when the non-profit Nonhuman Rights Project accused Stony Brook University of wrongfully imprisoning  two chimps, Hercules and Leo. Because of a chimp’s self -awareness, intelligence, and other traits, it deserves to be granted partial human rights, the group asserted. If they had won the case, the chimps were to be released at an animal sanctuary in Florida.

Currently, the animals are the center of a study on bipedalism (the ability to walk on two legs). Hercules and Leo are enticed with food to walk while video cameras record their movements, plates measure the force of each step, and fine-wire electrodes in their muscles analyze the body’s natural electricity. In an interview with Science Magazine, the lead investigator, Susan Larson, explains that “We don’t do anything with these chimpanzees that we haven’t done on ourselves.”

Back in April, it seemed there was hope for the non-profit group when Jaffe ordered Stony Brook University to provide justification for its custody of the two research chimps, Hercules and Leo. By granting a writ of habeas corpus — a legal action which allows lawyers to argue against unlawful detainment — the judge opened an official conversation on the rights of nonhumans. This week, however, that conversation was brought to a close.

In her decision, Jaffe called efforts to extend legal rights to chimpanzees “understandable,” but, she noted, legislators “are slow to embrace change.” Because our current legal system is black and white on this point, entities can only be considered either people or property and thus cannot be granted partial rights. Jaffe concluded that a chimpanzee’s inability to fulfill duties and obligations of an adult human excludes them from being considered people in the eyes of the law.

Although laws can evolve with time, Jaffe notes that this is the second court decision to deny chimps rights in the United States. In 2014, a higher court refused to acknowledge a chimpanzee as a legal person on similar grounds.

Nonhuman Rights Project President, Steven Wise, said he and his colleagues plan to appeal the ruling. Meanwhile, Larson’s research with Hercules and Leo will be wrapping up soon and the New Iberia Research Center (where the chimps were born) will decide where to send the animals next.

Despite the ruling, the era of chimp research appears to be drawing to an end. Due to increasing oversight, negative attitudes from the public, and a shortage of grant money, the number of researchers studying chimps is expected to decline.

What's your take on the issue of nonhuman rights? Tell us what your thoughts are in the comments below!

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