A New York Supreme Court justice has extended legal rights reserved for humans to two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, being held in captivity for biomedical research.
The case involves a legal right known as "writ of habeas corpus," intended to offer protection to people who may have been unlawfully imprisoned or detained. The writ of habeas corpus traditionally applies only to human beings. The judge's ruling (pdf) requires that the institute "detaining" Hercules and Leo must show cause why the Nonhuman Rights Project should not be granted an order permitting them to take custody of the chimps upon determination that they are being unlawfully detained.
According to the Nonhuman Rights Project press release:
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.”
The order could have far reaching implications in animal rights law, including reversing earlier court decisions that landed on the side of denying animals protection of human laws. Although this case involves chimpanzees held for animal research, the concept could be extended to other animals and institutions such as circuses, aquariums, and zoos.
The court order could also significantly change the way we humans hold animals for the purpose of testing chemical and biomedical advances. Just as many of us eat eggs or meat with no idea what protections (or lack thereof) have been afforded the animals that nourish us, we all benefit from vaccines, drugs, food preservatives, and many other "miracles" of modern life which were developed with an often unacknowledged sacrifice on the part of the species that cohabit the earth. Even cosmetics advertised as "cruelty-free" are sold only with the knowledge gained from testing the individual ingredients for safety many years ago, and from the animal-derived data which can be fed into new models for animal-free testing.
I am no expert in law, human or otherwise, but I imagine it will remain difficult to make the case that Hercules and Leo have been detained "unlawfully" in the sense that there are not laws that prohibit using animals for testing, as long as appropriate protections to avoid cruelty are in place, which I am reasonably certain is the case at most animal testing laboratories (again depending upon just how "cruelty" is defined). But this case is a big step in the dialogue we as a society continue to have about how we share our short days under the sun with other living beings on the planet -- at the border of where the rights of humans and the rights of animals meet.