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In Michigan, an arbitrary discrimination based on species

By Monica Miller

As the lead attorney on our case to free seven chimpanzees from the DeYoung Family Zoo in Michigan, I’m pleased to share the brief we recently filed on their behalf in the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The DeYoung Family Zoo is a roadside zoo whose treatment of chimpanzees has long been criticized by animal advocates. On a 2023 visit to the facility, we observed chimpanzees rocking back and forth and screaming and banging on the walls of their enclosures. The DeYoung Family Zoo is also where our client Tommy died “curled up in his sleeping spot” inside a building, according to USDA records (see p. 80 of this PDF).

With legendary chimpanzee experts on our side, we’re demanding recognition of our clients’ fundamental right to liberty under Michigan’s robust common law of habeas corpus, followed by their release to an accredited chimpanzee sanctuary.

In December of 2023, a trial court judge issued a one-sentence order that denied the NhRP’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus on their behalf because she believes chimpanzees aren’t legal persons, or rights-holders, under Michigan’s habeas corpus procedural statute.

Our brief on appeal argues that the trial court applied the wrong standard in dismissing the case on statutory grounds because the question of who may avail themselves of the protections of habeas corpus is for a court to decide under evolving common law doctrines. Habeas corpus has existed in the common law since the signing of the Magna Carta and has been flexibly applied for the purpose of achieving justice for oppressed individuals who are without any other remedy at law. Questions of statutory interpretation, by contrast, turn on rigid factors like legislative intent.

Our brief emphasizes that the court violated its own specific duty under the common law to protect autonomy and ensure even-handed application of the law. This duty is separate and distinct from the Michigan courts’ ultimate duty to issue our requested habeas corpus order, i.e. hold a hearing on the merits of their case and what our petition makes clear is their unlawful imprisonment.

Broadly speaking, we argue that modern scientific understanding of chimpanzees has changed dramatically and that their legal status–as mere “things” with no right to liberty–must change too. For any court to say that these autonomous beings who think like us, who can communicate in human sign language, who laugh at some of the same things we laugh at, perform religious services and wakes, and so much more can’t have their autonomy protected because they’re chimpanzees is to flout the court’s duty to protect autonomy. And it perpetuates an arbitrary discrimination based on species that cannot stand under Michigan’s common law.

The DeYoung Family Zoo has until June to file a brief in response if it chooses to. We anticipate that the Court of Appeals is likely to hear oral argument in the case this fall or winter.

As we write in our brief, the scientific evidence presented to the trial court is beyond dispute. Chimpanzees are autonomous, extraordinarily cognitively complex and self-determining beings. This autonomy demands protection. Accordingly, for the trial court to summarily dismiss our petition is to hold that autonomy does not actually matter: species membership does. This is wrong morally and legally.

You can learn more about our clients, share their stories, and find all court case updates on their client page. Thank you so much for your support.

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