For the first time in U.S. history, a judge has effectively recognized two chimpanzees as legal persons, in an order Monday which will allow a pair of research primates—Hercules and Leo—to seek relief from unlawful imprisonment.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe on Monday granted the chimps a writ of habeas corpus that will require Stony Brook University, where they are being kept for biomedical experiments, to appear in court and explain why the school has "unlawfully detained" Leo and Hercules. That hearing is set for May 6.
Jaffe's decision comes in response to a petition filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP). Steven Wise, one of the lawyers on the case, told the Guardian after the ruling, "This is one step in a long, long struggle."
As NhRP stated in a press release Monday: "Under the law of New York State, only a 'legal person' may have an order to show cause and writ of habeas corpus issued in his or her behalf. The Court has therefore implicitly determined that Hercules and Leo are 'persons.'"
"That's the first time that has happened," Wise said.
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If Leo and Hercules are found to be unlawfully detained, they will be transferred to Save the Chimps, a sanctuary in Ft. Pierce, Florida which currently holds 250 other primates on 13 artificial islands.
"This is a big step forward to getting what we are ultimately seeking: the right to bodily liberty for chimpanzees and other cognitively complex animals," NhRP executive director Natalie Prosin told Science. "We got our foot in the door. And no matter what happens, that door can never be completely shut again."
NhRP initially filed the suit in December 2013 on behalf of Leo, Hercules, and two other chimps being held on private property, arguing that the primates were too intelligent and emotionally complex to be kept in captivity. However, the case was dismissed by a justice of the Supreme Court of Suffolk County. The organization refiled its petition last March.
"It feels great. We knew it was going to happen sometime," Wise said on Monday.
Prosin added, "It strengthens our argument that these nonhuman animals are not property."