JULY 30, 2015.
ALBANY — In a case watched by animal rights activists and courtroom curiosity seekers, a State Supreme Court judge in Manhattan on Thursday denied a request to free a pair of chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, being held at a state university on Long Island. The unorthodox petition — which sought a writ of habeas corpus, an age-old method of challenging unlawful imprisonment — was the latest attempt by the nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project to establish that apes are “legal persons.”
The group argues that chimps are self-aware and autonomous, a contention it has supported by submitting affidavits attesting to the animals’ intelligence, language skills and personalities, among other traits, in several cases filed in New York on behalf of various imprisoned primates.
In what the group hoped was a positive sign, Justice Barbara Jaffe of State Supreme Court in April ordered a hearing on whether Hercules and Leo, 8-year-old apes living as research subjects at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, could be released and transferred to an animal sanctuary in Florida. Arguments were heard in late May.
But while Justice Jaffe took the case seriously — her 33-page decision cited the long history of habeas corpus and included references to discrimination against women and African-American slaves — she could not quite see Hercules and Leo as people in the eyes of the law.
“For the purpose of establishing rights, the law presently categorizes entities in a simple, binary, ‘all or nothing,’ fashion,” the justice wrote, noting: “Persons have rights, duties, and obligations. Things do not.”
“Animals, including chimpanzees and other highly intelligent mammals, are considered property under the law,” she continued. “They are accorded no legal rights,” beyond being free from mistreatment or abuse.