In a decision that effectively recognizes chimpanzees as legal persons for the first time, a New York judge today granted a pair of Stony Brook University lab animals the right to have their day in court. The ruling marks the first time in U.S. history that an animal has been covered by a writ of habeus corpus, which typically allows human prisoners to challenge their detention. The judicial action could force the university, which is believed to be holding the chimps, to release the primates, and could sway additional judges to do the same with other research animals.
“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,” says Natalie Prosin, the Executive Director of the animal rights organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), which filed the case. “We got our foot in the door. And no matter what happens, that door can never be completely shut again.”
Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and a noted opponent of personhood for animals, cautions against reading too much into the ruling, however. “The judge may merely want more information to make a decision on the legal personhood claim, and may have ordered a hearing simply as a vehicle for hearing out both parties in more depth,” he writes in an email to Science. “It would be quite surprising if the judge intended to make a momentous substantive finding that chimpanzees are legal persons if the judge has not yet heard the other side’s arguments.”