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Seeking a 'Citizens United' Victory for Chimpanzees

A series of lawsuits attempting to establish legal personhood for chimpanzees has been unleashed in New York. While its backers cite precedents like slavery and gay rights in their pleadings, perhaps an example from the boardroom is in order.


Last year Sue Russell reviewed some aspects of the animal rights movement in the U.S., noting both the efforts by some organizations to shift the debate from outside the front lawns of laboratories and into courtrooms, and the effort to establish the “personhood” of animals, or at least some animals, while before the judge.

Following through on that trend, the Nonhuman Rights Project is in the midst of filing three separate lawsuits in New York state to establish the personhood of chimpanzees. Today’s plaintiff was Tommy, a chimp being kept at a business known as Santa’s Trading Post in Gloversville. Tomorrow, the project intends to file suit on behalf of Kiko, a former actor now living at The Primate Sanctuary, Inc., in Niagara Falls. The project had planned to file suit for a second former actor living alongside Kiko, but Charlie, once known as the Karate Chimp, died recently. And on Thursday research primates will be the focus as Hercules and Leo, two chimps used in locomotion studies at SUNY Stony Brook, will be named as plaintiffs.

“Our strategy,” the group explains on its website, “is to file as many suits as we have the funds to be able to pursue, and in the states where we have the best chance of winning them. We will also encourage other animal rights attorneys and legal experts to file similar cases, modeled on the ones that have been successful.”

The engine, or at least a piston, behind these lawsuits is Stephen Wise, the president of the Nonhuman Rights Project and a practicing attorney who teaches about animal rights jurisprudence at a number of U.S. universities, including at Lewis & Clark University’s Center for Animal Law Studies. Wise told our Russell last year that his team was researching where to strike their first blow.

Currently, more than 50 people in six “working groups” are analyzing relevant state laws and legal precedents. They are researching, for example, how proponents of gay marriage chose jurisdictions in which to litigate and how certain high courts deal with non-autonomous humans like the comatose, mentally retarded, embryos, and fetuses. They are trying to pinpoint the most promising causes of action and the friendliest states and jurisdictions in which to file suit. [Here’s a 50-state breakdown of their findings that describes New York as “among the best states in the country for the kind of lawsuit the Nonhuman Rights Project will be filing.”]

The plan is to file a landmark case demanding state high courts declare at least one nonhuman animal possesses a legal right — and is therefore a legal “person." Choosing the optimal venue — perhaps a state whose Supreme Court is weighted with female judges or has overturned an anti-gay marriage statute — is critical. Then the goal is clear: file a case, win it, and survive the inevitable appeal to the first-ever serious legal challenge to “thinghood.”

His approach, influenced by successful historical efforts to ban slavery, protect the environment, or recognize gay rights, is fairly straightforward if definitely uphill:

Wise believes that nonhuman animals meet the criteria for “personhood” and other human-style rights and protections if they are enough like us to have “consciousness” or “mind” — self-awareness and the capacity to experience their own existence — and when they are capable of desiring things and of acting in a deliberate fashion to acquire them. Chimpanzees, for instance, use tools, and some can count, make a cup of tea, and communicate with sign language. African elephants, African grey parrots, dolphins, dogs, gorillas, orangutans, cetaceans, and others also have varied but impressive mental abilities.

As the preparation and research cited above suggests, proponents of animal personhood are really trying to make a solid case. Contrast that with the failed case that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed last year to free five performing orcas from SeaWorld using the 13th Amendment’s restriction on involuntary servitude. You could call it opposition to “peonhood.” The suit did not make the case that orcas are legal persons, leaving observers to label it a “publicity stunt” (SeaWorld) and a “fool’s errand” (Wise) and the judge to dismiss the case.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, on the other hand, is carefully laying out a case—with citations ranging from Pericles’ funeral oration to the 1985 case Catholic Home Bureau for Dependent Children v City of New York to establish that the chimps are both persons under the law and therefore their holders—the roadside zoo, the sanctuary, and the lab—must comply with a writ of habeas corpus and explain how they can legally justify keeping the chimps. If they can’t justify the “detention,” the chimps would be placed in a sanctuary picked by the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.

The argument that the chimps are persons is grounded in their exceptional intelligence and apparent self-awareness—in short, their “autonomy.” Much of that detailed in the suits by a series of affidavits from a global cast of prominent primatologists, psychologists, and cognitive researchers.

“Personhood” is a big step beyond just calling for an end, say, to animal experimentation or pigeon shoots. A lot of observers, including some in the animal rights movement itself, see it as quixotic or loaded with a raft of unintended, and potentially unwelcome, consequences. But we already know that corporations are people, possibly even having rights like freedom of religion, so what might have once seemed absurd now merely seems a stretch.