Last week, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe ordered a New York university laboratory to show legal cause for confining two chimpanzees named Leo and Hercules.
Originally, Justice Jaffe issued an Order to Show Cause and Writ of Habeas Corpus on behalf of the two chimpanzees. She subsequently amended the order by striking a “ Writ of Habeas Corpus,” a legal means to address unlawful imprisonment. Regardless of the amendment to her order, the university is still ordered into court to justify the imprisonment of Leo and Hercules.
As reported by the New York Times, Justice Jaffe’s order for a hearing “will touch upon the continuing debate over whether caged chimpanzees can be considered ‘legal persons,’ in the eyes of the law, and thus sue, with human help, for their freedom.” If the case on behalf of Leo and Hercules is successful, they would be moved to a sanctuary where they can live out their lives in peace.
As a doctor who has studied chimpanzees affected by trauma and mental illness that mirrors the suffering of my human patients, my eyes filled with tears when I first heard the historic news.
Justice Jaffe’s decision and the excitement surrounding her original order and amendment stirred public controversy. Proponents of ending chimpanzee confinement and experimentation hailed the decision. Opponents cautioned against further protections for chimpanzees.
Legally, chimpanzees can still be held in a cage approximately the size of a small shed. They can be separated from their mothers at birth, injected repeatedly with lethal toxins and viruses, and held in solitary confinement for the entirety of their lives.
In the eyes of the law, a chimpanzee is still considered “something,” not “someone.”
In 2010, public officials, scientists, and doctors like me joined ranks with activists and the general public to urge the National Institutes of Health to reevaluate its policy on federal support for chimpanzee experimentation. In response to public pressure, the National Institutes of Health commissioned the Institute of Medicine to analyze whether chimpanzee research is scientifically necessary.
On December 15, 2011, the Institute of Medicine Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research released its report concluding that chimpanzees are largely unnecessary for research.
Within a month of its release, the Institute of Medicine report was designated by Wired Science as one of the “top scientific discoveries of 2011.” On June 26, 2013, Francis Collins announced that federally-funded chimpanzee research would be phased out in the United States. But the federal response failed to address the moral concerns and the public controversy that led to the demand for policy change.
Our continued failure to address the moral problems with chimpanzees being considered “something,” and not “someone,” is precisely what’s at legal stake. This legal stalemate led attorney Steve Wise and his team at the Nonhuman Rights Project to launch a legal case on behalf of Leo, Hercules, and other chimpanzees like them.
Chimpanzees, like humans, suffer tremendously when they are taken from their mothers, placed in isolation, and used in harmful experiments. In 2011, my colleagues and I showed how chimpanzees used in laboratory experiments can also suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and other forms of mental illness. The Nonhuman Rights Project is merely asking the court to grant Leo and Hercules freedom from imprisonment and further harm.
So should chimpanzees and other nonhuman animals receive any legal rights? And, if so, what factors should determine what rights they receive?
At the very least, we should meet their basic needs – including freedom from confinement (in legalese, bodily liberty) and freedom from harm (in legalese, bodily integrity). That is all Leo and Hercules’ advocates are asking for.
As Natalie Prosin, Executive Director of the Nonhuman Rights Project told me, “Chimpanzees are autonomous, self-aware individuals. These characteristics are not being recognized and protected under the law since they are classified as mere things. The issuance of this Order is a significant step forward in having a court of law to recognize them as legal persons with fundamental rights.”
If you’d like to support the Nonhuman Rights Project’s fight for Leo, Hercules, and other chimpanzees, please click here.