The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Chimpanzees aren't 'persons' entitled to habeas corpus rights


Vanessa, a 31-year old chimpanzee mother, gestures while her newborn baby plays with her in their enclosure at the zoo in Osnabrueck, northern Germany on Jan. 21, 2014. The baby chimpanzee was born on January 6, 2014 and has four siblings. (Carmen Jaspersen/AFP/Getty Images)

So holds Thursday's decision in People ex rel. Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery (N.Y. Super. Ct. App. Div. Dec. 4, 2014) (paragraph break added):

This appeal presents the novel question of whether a chimpanzee is a "person" entitled to the rights and protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus. Notably, we have not been asked to evaluate the quality of Tommy's current living conditions in an effort to improve his welfare. In fact, petitioner's counsel stated at oral argument that it does not allege that respondents are in violation of any state or federal statutes respecting the domestic possession of wild animals. According to petitioner, while respondents are in compliance with state and federal statutes, the statutes themselves are inappropriate.

Yet, rather than challenging any such statutes, petitioner requests that this Court enlarge the common-law definition of "person" in order to afford legal rights to an animal. We decline to do so, and conclude that a chimpanzee is not a "person" entitled to the rights and protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus.

Here's the heart of the rationale:

[U]nlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions. In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights—such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus—that have been afforded
to human beings.

[Footnote, moved from earlier:] To be sure, some humans are less able to bear legal duties or responsibilities than others. These differences do not alter our analysis, as it is undeniable that, collectively, human beings possess the unique ability to bear legal responsibility. Accordingly, nothing in this decision should be read as limiting the rights of human beings in the context of habeas corpus proceedings or otherwise.

Thanks to How Appealing for the pointer; see this Washington Post article (by Rachel Feltman, Speaking of Science) for more. Russian speakers should read this famous short poem for children—but of course, if you were raised speaking Russian, you already thought of this even without my link, right?