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Media Coverage: Hercules and Leo’s Court Hearing

By Lauren Choplin

On May 27th in New York County Supreme Court in Manhattan, NY, the Nonhuman Rights Project argued that, based on principles of liberty and equality, chimpanzees Hercules and Leo should be granted the right to bodily liberty and released from the laboratory at Stony Brook University where they’re being held for use in non-medical locomotion research. Here’s a round-up of some of the news reports about the hearing:

Wired focuses first on the decision by Justice Barbara Jaffe to call both sides into court for a full hearing. Wired quotes attorney and NhRP President Steven M. Wise as telling reporters that this fact represents a victory in itself:

“Many human beings have these kinds of hearings. Chimpanzees are now being treated like all the other autonomous beings of this world.”

Wired also takes note of how the judge challenged New York Assistant Attorney General Christopher Coulston argument that there’s no precedent for a case like this. It is the very essence of the common law, she countered, that it “evolves according to new discoveries and social mores.” And so, she asked, “Isn’t it incumbent on judiciaries to at least consider whether a class of beings may be granted a right?”

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Richard Drew/Pool
Photo Credit: REUTERS/Richard Drew/Pool

TV news outlets around the country picked up the video feed from the courtroom. Here’s a report from Fox News:

The New York Times quotes Wise telling the court that chimpanzees “are the kinds of beings who can remember the past and plan ahead for the future, which is one of the reasons imprisoning a chimp is at least as bad, and maybe worse, than imprisoning a person.”¬†It is the very essence of the common law, the judge said, that it “evolves according to new discoveries and social mores.” They are enough like humans that they should have a right to “bodily liberty,” even if other rights, like voting or freedom of religion, are beyond them.

The Guardian also takes up the scientific evidence presented by the Nonhuman Rights Project, citing the voluminous research on “chimpanzee intelligence, emotions and consciousness” and noting that Hercules and Leo are “autonomous and self-determining beings.”

Judge Barbara Jaffe presides in court on Wednesday. Photo: Richard Drew/AP
Judge Barbara Jaffe presides in court on Wednesday. Photo: Richard Drew/AP

Courthouse News picks up on the parallel that the Nonhuman Rights Project draws between the imprisonment of chimpanzees and human slavery, adding that Coulston “bristled” at the comparison. “This language of animals as slaves is exactly what I’m talking about of the slippery slope,” he said, arguing that the case could open up the possibility of court cases on the rights of zoo animals, farmed animals, and even pets. Wise replied that this case is specifically about animals who demonstrate autonomy, and Wired quotes him as saying: “The purpose of the writ of habeas corpus isn‚Äôt to protect a human being; it‚Äôs to protect autonomy.” In other words, this case is about the core values of American society and New York law, which place great value on liberty. “And liberty is synonymous with autonomy.”

“Chimps are autonomous and self-determined beings,” Wise said. “They are not governed by instinct. They are self-conscious. They have language, they have mathematics, they have material and social culture. They are the kinds of beings who can remember the past and plan for the future.” And just as in a human those capacities are grounds for the right to be free, the same applies to chimpanzees.

Coulston also argued that the whole question of the treatment of animals like these belonged in the legislature, not in the courts. No court in the United States has ever granted relief to nonhuman animals through habeas corpus. Wise responded that there was a simple reason for this:

“Before the Nonhuman Rights Project started filing these suits, nobody had ever asked!”

Justice Jaffe will be issuing a decision in due course. Meanwhile, the Nonhuman Rights Project presses ahead with its appeals to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, in the cases of two other chimpanzees, Tommy and Kiko.¬†See Court Cases for more information and PDFs of legal documents.

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