New York Court Recognizes Chimpanzees As Legal Non-Human Persons

Judge Recognizes Two Chimpanzees as Legal Persons, Grants them Writ of Habeas Corpus

The Nonhuman Rights Project issued the following press release – April 20, 2015:

For the first time in history a judge has granted an order to show cause and writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a nonhuman animal. This afternoon, in a case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe issued an order to show cause and writ of habeas corpus on behalf of two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, who are being used for biomedical experimentation at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York.

Under the law of New York State, only a “legal person” may have an order to show cause and writ of habeas corpus issued in his or her behalf.

The Court has therefore implicitly determined that Hercules and Leo are “persons.”

A common law writ of habeas corpus involves a two-step process. First, a Justice issues the order to show cause and a writ of habeas corpus, which the Nonhuman Rights Project then serves on Stony Brook University.

The writ requires Stony Brook University, represented by the Attorney General of New York, to appear in court and provide a legally sufficient reason for detaining Hercules and Leo. The Court has scheduled that hearing for May 6, 2015, though it may be moved to a later day in May.  

The NhRP has asked that Hercules and Leo be freed and released into the care of Save the Chimps, a sanctuary in Ft. Pierce, Florida. There they will spend the rest of their lives primarily on one of 13 artificial islands on a large lake in Ft. Pierce, Florida along with 250 other chimpanzees in an environment as close to that of their natural home in Africa as can be found in North America. In the second step of the process, the Court will determine whether the reason given by Stony Brook is legally sufficient, or whether Hercules and Leo should be freed.

Hercules and Leo’s suit was originally filed in the Supreme Court of Suffolk County in December, 2013. A Justice of that Court refused to issue the requested writ of habeas corpus, and the Appellate Division, Second Department, dismissed the appeal on the ground that the NhRP lacked the right to appeal.

In the belief that both courts erred, the Nonhuman Rights Project respectfully re-filed its petition for an order to show cause and writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Hercules and Leo in March, 2015, in the New York County Supreme Court in Manhattan, which led to today’s decision.

In two similar cases on behalf of two other chimpanzees, Tommy and Kiko, the Nonhuman Rights Project has filed Motions for Leave to Appeal to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. Decisions in both cases are pending.

See also: ‘Thanks for everything’: The touching moment a chimp who was nursed back to health hugs Jane Goodall before being released into the outdoors

Clarification Posted 4/21/2015, 1 pm Eastern

Within the last few hours, the Nonhuman Rights Project has become aware of certain reporting about yesterday’s “Order to Show Cause and Writ of Habeas Corpus” issued by Judge Barbara Jaffe of the New York County Supreme Court that we think exaggerates or reads too much into the Judge’s Order. We would like to make clear what we believe the Order does, and does not, necessarily mean and at the same time clarify a press release that we issued yesterday afternoon.

The Order does not necessarily mean that the Court has declared that the two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, are legal persons for the purpose of an Article 70 common law writ of habeas corpus proceeding. In New York, an Article 70 proceeding has two steps.

The first is that the Court may issue an Order to Show Cause (which is the equivalent of a writ of habeas corpus, except the petitioner does not request that the body of the alleged detainee be immediately brought before the Court).

The issuance of the Order means, we believe, that the Court believes at minimum that the chimpanzees could possibly be legal persons for the purpose of Article 70, without deciding that they are, and that the issue will be determined only after it is fully briefed and argued at the adversarial hearing that is step 2 of the Article 70 proceeding.


UPDATE: The hearing is now scheduled for Wednesday, May 27 at 10:30 am at the New York County Supreme Court, 80 Centre St., New York, NY 10013. The hearing is open to the public.