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Chimpanzees, Habeas Corpus, and the "Un-Human" Right to Be Un-Caged

Petition filed in New York court demands chimps in captivity have 'fundamental right not to be imprisoned'

Jon Queally, staff writer

"We will assert, based on clear scientific evidence, that it's time to take the next step and recognize that these non-human animals cannot continue to be exploited as the property of their human owners," says animal rights lawyer Steven Wise. (WALT MANCINI/AP)

An animal rights group has filed one petition and will continue to file others in a New York court  this week demanding that a number of chimpanzees held captive in the state be granted status as "cognitively complex autonomous legal person[s] with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned."

Steven M. Wise, who leads the Nonhuman Rights Project, filed a writ of habeaus corpus with the court in a clever (though not wholly unprecedented) legal move on Monday that would see a chimp named Tommy—now held "captive in a cage in a shed at a used-trailer lot" in the town of Groversville—removed from his current holdings and given placement in a wildlife sanctuary instead.

Wise will file similar petitions for three others chimps in the coming days.

As the New York Times reports:

Wise, who has written about the history of habeas corpus writs in the fight against human slavery and who views the crusade for animal rights as a lifelong project, said New York fit the bill. His legal action added a milestone to a year that has already been remarkable for chimpanzees, with one federal agency taking steps to retire most chimps owned by the government and another proposing to classify all chimps as endangered, an action that would throw up new obstacles to experiments even on privately owned chimps.

Activists have relished their successes, while some scientists have deplored restrictions on the use of the animals, which have played a crucial role in some biomedical research, such as work on hepatitis C vaccines.

Until now, all the actions have addressed the issue of animal welfare, not animal rights. But Mr. Wise filed papers on Monday in State Supreme Court in Fulton County, N.Y., demanding that courts in New York recognize Tommy as a legal person, with a right to liberty, but one that has its limits.

And USA Today adds:

State law allows any person unlawfully detained to seek a writ of habeas corpus that requires the jailers to prove the basis for the detention. New York issued such writs for slaves, not considered people under the laws of the time, to determine whether the slaves should be returned to their purported owners or given freedom, the lawsuit argues.

"Not long ago, people generally agreed that human slaves could not be legal persons, but were simply the property of their owners," Wise said. "We will assert, based on clear scientific evidence, that it's time to take the next step and recognize that these non-human animals cannot continue to be exploited as the property of their human owners."

The Nonhuman Rights Project intends to file two additional lawsuits to free two male chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, allegedly owned by New Iberia Research Center and used in locomotion research by the anatomy department at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y., and Kiko, a 26-year-old chimpanzee living on private property in Niagara Falls, Wise says.

Wise wants the chimps to be released to a sanctuary where the animals can live among other chimps in a more natural setting.


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