In the fight to protect animals, people engage in a lot of different activities, from promoting alternatives to animal products to sometimes engaging in more extreme, illegal activities, like liberating laboratory animals.
But Steven Wise, an attorney based in New York state, has been filing lawsuits on behalf of four chimpanzees that he argues are intelligent “persons” and shouldn’t be kept in cages.
Wise believes that the chimps, Leo, Kiko, Hercules, and Tommy, should have legal rights typically granted only to people, arguing that the chimpanzees are intelligent, self-away, and that denying their freedom by keeping them in cages is a violation of their rights.
Tommy and Kiko, two of the chimpanzees Wise has dedicated his time to freeing, live in upstate New York and are trained to perform in movies and tv shows. Hercules and Leo have been bounced from one research facility to another and now live at a facility in Louisiana.
The first lawsuit was filed in December of 2013, arguing that legal precedent had been set for chimpanzees being “persons” for legal purposes, making caging them a violation of their rights. He believes the animals should be set free in an outdoor animal sanctuary.
Wise has been filing these lawsuits based on the writ of habeas corpus, which is a legal doctrine included in the framing of the United States constitution to prohibit authorities from incarcerating people without charging them. These lawsuits are geared toward preventing people from imprisoning the chimps without actually taking them to court.
Other countries have made more progress on this front than Wise. Recently, a judge in Argentina ruled that a chimpanzee named Cecilia had legal rights and ordered her to be released from a zoo. India and New Zealand have given constitutional rights normally awarded to human beings to rivers. The legal rights of our natural environment are being expanded upon rapidly.
New York’s court system has not been particularly friendly to Wise’s various petitions. So far, each petition but one has been denied. In the case of Tommy’s rights, a judge issued a decision. The judge, however, cited a definition of personhood that would deny the chimpanzee his freedom. He cited Black’s Law Dictionary’s definition as “a person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights and duties.”
The judge argued that, while a chimpanzee may have intelligence and may be a thinking being, it can’t be entitled to rights because it has no societal responsibilities and cannot be legally held responsible for its actions.
That decision created a legal precedent, which makes Wise’s task that much harder. In March, a Manhattan court relied on that precedent to deny another habeas corpus petition for Kiko and Tommy. But Wise and his team are having doubts about the legitimacy of the judge’s argument used to deny Tommy his rights.
“We thought, ‘that can’t be right,” Wise said. “If a chimp or a small child has to be able to bear duties to have any rights at all, then we can do anything we want to them. If the court is right, it would be very, very bad not to be able to bear duties.”
So they began to look into Black’s Law Dictionary, the source used to issue the ruling. The judge had used the 10th edition of the dictionary, published in 1947. Spencer Lo, an attorney volunteering to help Wise, tracked down an original copy of the dictionary through the Library of Congress.
They found exactly what they thought they would – that the language of the text had been misprinted and then used by the judge to produce the decision. The definition of personhood wasn’t “rights and duties,” it was “rights or duties.”
Wise and his team are hopeful that this revelation will reverse the 2014 decision that Tommy can’t be considered a person, allowing them to move forward with more legal challenges to free these four chimpanzees.
“Right now, in the state of New York, it’s clear to us that being autonomous should be sufficient condition for a chimp to have rights,” Wise says. “We’re very prepared to show that every chimp in the world should be a person, and likely elephants and whales and dolphins, too.”
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