A New York State judge will soon decide whether two chimpanzees held at SUNY Stony Brook for biomedical experimentation are being unlawfully detained and should be treated like humans. State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe applied the first step of a potential “Writ of Habeas Corpus,” which would allow someone to report the unlawful imprisonment of a person, to the primates. The decision marks the first time the recourse, which the U.S. inherited from English common law, has been applied to an animal.
The next step will take place when the judge hears the university’s argument as to why the monkeys – named Hercules and Leo – should stay at the school, rather than an animal sanctuary. The University will have to “show cause” for their side at the hearing, which will take place on May 6th.
“This is one step in a long, long struggle,” Steven Wise, an attorney defending the chimps, told The Guardian. “She never says explicitly that our non-human plaintiffs were persons but by issuing the order… she’s either saying implicitly that they are or that they certainly can be. So that’s the first time that has happened.”
A rep for Stony Brook tells Rolling Stone, “The University does not comment on the specifics of litigation, and awaits the court’s full consideration on this matter.”
Wise had argued that the monkeys were intelligent, emotionally complex and self-aware to the degree that they deserve human rights, the newspaper reports. Specifically, Wise said that Hercules and Leo were “autonomous and self-determining.”
He expects state attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who is representing the school, to argue that the chimpanzees are not persons. “That’s where the battle lines are drawn,” Wise said.
Attorneys for the Nonhuman Rights Project had brought the case before the court originally in December 2013, the organization reports. At the time, a judge refused to issue the writ and another court dismissed the lawyers’ appeal. The attorneys then filed for another appeal in March of this year, which led to Jaffe presiding over the case.
“This is a big step forward to getting what we are ultimately seeking: the right to bodily liberty for chimpanzees and other cognitively complex animals,” Natalie Prosin, the executive director of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), said about the decision, according to Science magazine. “We got our foot in the door. And no matter what happens, that door can never be completely shut again.”
The Nonhuman Rights Project wants Hercules and Leo to be delivered to the Save the Chimps sanctuary in St. Pierce, Florida, where they will live out their lives on one of 13 artificial islands with 250 other chimps. The environment resembles their native habitat.
Lawyers for the Nonhuman Rights Project also have two similar cases pending for two other chimpanzees, named Tommy and Kiko.
Previously, an appeals court turned down the Project’s request for Tommy, claiming that chimpanzees do not contribute to society and cannot be held accountable for their own actions, according to The Guardian. Another court argued that moving Kiko to a sanctuary represented another form of imprisonment and denied the Project’s request.