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Chimp 'Personhood' Battle Rages On As Apes Languish In Lab Cages

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After a long battle for freedom, two chimps named Hercules and Leo are still languishing in cages at a research lab at New York's Stony Brook University. But 50 miles to the east, their rescuers are tirelessly fighting for their release.

The chimps are at the center of an effort to grant "legal personhood" to chimpanzees so that they may be retired to accredited sanctuaries. Earlier this week, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) re-filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the two chimps in a Manhattan court. The writ would be used to "secure immediate release from unjust confinement" - essentially, to free Hercules and Leo from life in a lab.

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Hercules and Leo are used in locomotion research at Stony Brook University as part of efforts to understand how humans' ancestors began to walk upright on two legs. Little is known about their quality of life or whether they are even aware of each others' presence.

The move follows an appeal filed last year for the chimps in a Brooklyn court. An appellate court dismissed NhRP's appeal, but the organization is not giving up.

"They have spent their lives in laboratory cages," said NhRP president Steven M. Wise in a release. "Now they deserve their day in court and their release to Save the Chimps in Ft. Pierce, Florida, where they will spend the rest of their lives living with dozens of other chimpanzees in an environment as close to Africa as can be had in North America."

Two other chimps have been the plaintiffs in similar lawsuits: Tommy, a chimp living alone in a cage on a used trailer lot in Gloversville, New York, and Kiko, who's being held on private property in Niagara Falls, New York. Appeals have been filed in each case.

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The main thrust of NhRP's argument is that as sentient, emotional and intelligent creatures, chimps should qualify for the right to "personhood" - meaning the right not to be held in unpleasant conditions against their will. And the group isn't stopping at chimps, either.

"We're looking at species that we can prove in a court of law are determined emotionally and cognitively complex to qualify for personhood," Natalie Prosin, executive director of NhRP, told The Dodo last October. "We believe that we have evidence for this level of cognitive complexity for all species of great apes, African and Asian elephants and some cetaceans like orca whales and dolphins."

See this page for more information about efforts to free chimps like Leo and Hercules.