Do Chimps Have Human Rights?

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Activists argue that if an animal has autonomy, then it is protected by the law

For Hoover InstitutionJames Huffman writes: Readers of the New York Times Magazine will have seen a photograph of an animatronic chimpanzee testifying at court on the cover of a recent edition. That chimp is supposed to represent Tommy. As the Times story details, lawyer Steven Wise seeks to represent Tommy in court, though Tommy is owned by Patrick and Diane Lavery who keep him in a cage in Gloversville, New York. Not surprisingly, some people are upset by the conditions of Tommy’s confinement. Wise, the president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NRP), is one of those people.

potd-chimp_2633133bNRP’s mission is “to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.” Tommy is their first guinea pig, to use an expression Wise may well find objectionable.

Last December Wise filed a petition on Tommy’s behalf for a writ of habeas corpus in the court of Fulton County, New York. Habeas corpus is an ancient common law cause of action brought on behalf of persons who claim to be wrongly imprisoned. If a court concludes that the petitioner is held captive without legal cause, it orders the captor to release the captive. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the interest of better prosecuting the war, but as a general matter the writ has served for centuries as one of the most important common law protections of individual liberty.

So it makes sense. Wise believes that Tommy is wrongly imprisoned. What better remedy than habeas corpus? But even assuming it could be proven that Tommy is an illegal captive held against his will, Wise and his fellow lawyers face an enormous obstacle. For the entire history of the common law, the writ of habeas corpus has been available only to secure the release of wrongfully imprisoned persons. Tommy is not a person; he is a chimpanzee.

Of course Wise knows that. He knows that no American (or Anglo) court has ever issued a writ of habeas corpus ordering the release of a nonhuman creature. As their mission statement makes clear, the Nonhuman Rights Project exists to change that.

According to Wise, a chimpanzee was selected as the first test case because there are sanctuaries willing to take him in if he is released. But there is also little doubt that Tommy is the chosen petitioner because many people, including many judges, see something of themselves in a chimpanzee. Chimpanzees, who share 99 percent of their DNA with homo sapiens, eerily resemble humans in their appearance and behavior, even if we don’t dress them up in a coat and tie. There is probably a far better chance of persuading a judge to issue a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a chimpanzee than a dolphin. For the Nonhuman Rights Project, chimpanzees are the first priority, then the other great apes, then dolphins, then whales, and so on.

What Wise is looking for is a judge willing to do what has never been done before. In the Times story, Wise is quoted as saying: “If we lose, we keep doing it again and again, until we find a judge . . . [willing] to make that leap of faith.” Wise does not explain what faith has to do with it, but if making a leap of faith means ignoring the law, that is exactly the sort of judge he needs. As the trial court judge in Tommy’s case found, notwithstanding his sympathies for Wise’s cause, there is no way to get to Wise’s endpoint while being consistent with the rule of law…(read more)

Hoover Institution

James Huffman is dean emeritus and formerly the Erskine Wood Sr. Professor of Law at Lewis and Clark Law School in Oregon. He served as dean of the law school from 1993 to 2006. Huffman serves on the boards of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, the Western Resource Legal Center and the Classroom Law Project and is a member and former chairman of the Federalist Society Property and Environment Practice Group. He is the author of two books published in 2013 by Palgrave Macmillan: Private Property and State Power andPrivate Property and the Constitution. Huffman is a visiting fellow of the Hoover Institution.


2 Comments on “Do Chimps Have Human Rights?”

  1. […] Do Chimps Have Human Rights?. […]

  2. […] Pundit from another Planet Activists argue that if an animal has autonomy, then it is protected by the law. For Hoover […]


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