Chimps are not people: New York court

Chimpanzees do not deserve the same rights as people, a New York state appeals court has unanimously concluded before refusing to order the release of two of the animals to a primate sanctuary.

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The 5-0 decision by the Appellate Division in Manhattan on Thursday is the latest defeat for the Nonhuman Rights Project and its lawyer Steven Wise in a long debate over whether caged chimpanzees are actually legal “persons” entitled like humans to bodily liberty.

Tommy and Kiko, the chimpanzees in question, are held by private owners in upstate New York.

Citing experts like British primatologist Jane Goodall, the Nonhuman Rights Project said chimpanzees and humans share many behavioural, cognitive and social capabilities.

It said this entitled chimpanzees to many of the same rights, including against improper detention, and sought “habeas corpus” relief to win freedom for Tommy and Kiko.

But the shared capabilities “do not translate to a chimpanzee’s capacity or ability, like humans, to bear legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions,” Justice Troy Webber wrote for the appeals court.

“While petitioner’s avowed mission is certainly laudable, the according of any fundamental legal rights to animals, including entitlement to habeas relief, is an issue better suited to the legislative process,” Webber wrote.

Thursday’s decision upheld rulings by state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe in Manhattan.

The Nonhuman Rights Project was not immediately available for comment.

Wise also tried unsuccessfully to win the release of the chimpanzees Hercules and Leo from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. They later moved to Louisiana after the school decided to stop using them for research.

Tommy’s and Kiko’s cause drew support from Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe in a friend-of-the-court brief.

According to the decision, Tribe suggested that nonhuman animals could face legal duties, citing a “long history, mainly from the medieval and early modern periods, of animals being tried for offenses such as attacking human beings and eating crops.”

Webber, however, said none of the cited cases were recent or from New York, and that chimpanzees’ inability to defend themselves or take sufficient responsibility explains why those that kill or seriously injure humans are not prosecuted.