8 min read

Seeking Legal Rights for Nonhuman Animals

<p><a class="redactor-added-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/101951515@N07/">orca_bc</a></p>

The Nonhuman Rights Project is petitioning courts in New York State to grant four chimpanzees the legal right to bodily liberty so that they can be released to a sanctuary.

Our plaintiff did not walk into our office; he couldn't. When we last saw him, he was being held captive in solitary confinement in a small, dank, cement cage in a dark shed in temperatures 40 degrees below his native land.

Our plaintiff is a chimpanzee named Tommy. Day in and day out Tommy lives a life of isolation in the back of a used trailer lot in Gloversville, New York, far from Africa where he has never been and will never get to go. He is unable to do the things that are natural to chimpanzees. He cannot build a nest, socialize with others of his own kind or forage for food.

It isn't difficult to recognize from a moral or philosophical perspective that Tommy has an interest in not being confined under these conditions. But that fact that it's intuitively obvious to most people that Tommy's situation is not "right" makes no difference because Tommy, like so many other cognitively advanced, self-aware nonhuman animals, is not a being whom the law recognizes as having any legal rights. Tommy is a piece of property, and what his owners are doing has been considered legal since the advent of our legal system and well before.

Certainly, over the years, there have been efforts, both through legislation and in the courts, to protect the interests of animals. But animal welfare laws are largely without teeth because our legal system sees animals like Tommy as mere pieces of property that can be bought and sold, used for almost any purpose, and treated in almost any way that their owner sees fit.

Right now, three lawsuits are working their way through the courts in New York State on behalf of Tommy and three other chimpanzees: Kiko, a chimpanzee who was exploited for years in the entertainment business, and Hercules and Leo, two chimpanzees who are being used in experiments at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. We had intended to include three other chimpanzees in our lawsuits, but they all died before we could give them their day in court.

We argue that Tommy, Kiko, Hercules and Leo are not pieces of property but are "legal persons" with the basic right to bodily liberty. And just to be clear, "legal person" is not the same thing as a human being. In law, a legal person is a term that refers to any entity capable of having legal rights. Corporations, religious idols, ships, and even a river, for example, have been recognized in common law courts around the world as legal persons that have certain kinds of rights. That doesn't mean they have human rights. And we're not trying to give human rights to chimpanzees, either. Human rights belong to human beings. Chimpanzee rights begin with the fundamental legal right to bodily liberty.

Once the right to bodily liberty is recognized, these four plaintiffs can be released to reputable sanctuaries where they can live out their days with other chimpanzees in an environment as close to the wild as possible.

Our lawsuits are supported by an international group of the world's most respected primatologists. These scientists have demonstrated that chimpanzees possess such cognitive abilities as autonomy, self-determination, self-consciousness, awareness of the past, anticipation of the future, and the ability to make choices; that they display complex emotions like empathy; and that they construct diverse cultures. Courts have recognized that the possession of these characteristics is sufficient to establish personhood and the consequential fundamental right to bodily liberty.

Traditionally, Lady Justice is portrayed as wearing a blindfold as she holds the scales of justice. The idea is that justice should be blind -- impartial and dispensed without regard to the classes of persons who appear before her. Ironically, however, justice has been blind in another way, too: blind to all living beings except humans. To this day they remain invisible to the legal system.

It's time for Lady Justice to open her eyes to the fact that at least some nonhuman animals are more than pieces of property, and to recognize Tommy and his kind for who and what they truly are.

By Natalie Prosin ****
Natalie Prosin is Executive Director of the Nonhuman Rights Project. She holds a Masters in Public Policy from Brown University and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. She lives in Washington, D.C.