New York judge considers giving chimps human rights

Human Rights
by Sarah Schweinsberg
Posted 5/30/15, 12:00 pm

Two chimpanzees are trying to escape the Concrete Jungle.

The Nonhuman Rights Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of the two chimpanzees being kept  for research purposes at Stony Brook University on Long Island. The NhRP is fighting for the chimps to be granted personhood under New York state law and wants the chimps removed from the university to a sanctuary in Florida.

Steven Wise, the attorney for the NhRP, argued on Wednesday before Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Barbara Jaffe that the court should grant the chimps, which were not present at the hearing, a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that they are “autonomous and self-determining beings.”

Habeas corpus typically requires a person under arrest to be brought before a judge to secure the person’s release, unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention.

Christopher Coulston, an assistant New York state attorney general representing Stony Brook University, argued granting habeas corpus to the chimps would essentially grant them personhood and human rights.

That would create a slippery slope regarding the rights of other confined creatures, like zoo animals, farm animals, and domesticated pets, he said. And it is up to the legislature—not the court—to decide what personhood is in this case, he argued.

“The reality is these are fundamentally different species,” Coulston told the judge before a crowd of about 100 people packed into the Manhattan courthouse’s ceremonial courtroom. “There’s simply no precedent anywhere of an animal getting the same rights as a human.”

Wise argued that keeping the chimpanzees at the university was comparable to slavery, imprisonment, and the involuntary detention of mentally ill people.

“They’re essentially in solitary confinement,” Wise said. “This is what we do to the worst human criminal.”

Wise compared chimpanzees’s situation to that of Native Americans and African Americans before they were granted the right of habeas corpus under the law. He said scientific experts agree chimpanzees are cognitively advanced beings that should be given personhood status in cases of confinement.

Lori K. Sheeran, director of primate behavior and ecology at Central Washington University, agrees with Wise’s assessment.

“By now, the evidence is overwhelming that primates are cognitively advanced creatures. … If we are going to keep them in captivity, we will need to address these needs,” she said.

But John Stonestreet of the Chuck Colson Center on Christian Worldview said when it comes to human rights and who should be granted them, science is irrelevant. Science cannot prove there is such a thing as human rights. There is no extrinsic quality that makes us all human, he said. What unites us is our shared humanity not our shared qualities.

The NhRP has filed other similar lawsuits, two of which are pending in New York state court.

Jaffe has not issued a ruling but is expected to make a decision soon.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sarah Schweinsberg

Sarah is a reporter for WORLD Radio.

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