Chimps Could Soon Win Legal Personhood

Rights for many intelligent animals could hinge on a one-word edit in a law dictionary.
Chimps as Legal People.jpg

Zoos, circuses, research facilities, and other organizations that keep highly intelligent animals in captivity would all be affected by the change.

Photo by mason01 / iStock.

For the past three years, an attorney has been filing lawsuits in New York state on behalf of four chimpanzees named Tommy, Kiko, Hercules, and Leo. They are intelligent “persons,” he argues, and should not be kept in cages.

The large legal and philosophical questions in this case hinge on a bit of grammar.

Steven Wise, who is also president of the Florida-based Nonhuman Rights Project, believes that the chimps should have the legal right not to be kept in captivity because they are intelligent and self-aware. In December 2013, he sued on their behalf, arguing in several lawsuits that the chimps were “persons” for legal purposes and therefore could not be confined in cages. He suggested that they be released to an outdoor animal sanctuary.

The lawsuits are based on habeas corpus, a legal doctrine that prevents an accuser from imprisoning someone without bringing charges against them in a court of law.

Two of the chimps, Tommy and Kiko, were trained to perform in movies and TV shows and are now living in upstate New York. The other two, Hercules and Leo, have been moved around from one research facility to another all their lives, and are now in Louisiana.

Two things make this case notable beyond the usual animal advocacy lawsuits.

One, it comes at a time when legal rights of nature and broadening definitions of personhood are gaining traction worldwide. In the past few months, rivers in New Zealand and India were given constitutional rights normally reserved for human beings. Meanwhile, a judge in Argentina ruled in November that a chimpanzee named Cecilia had legal rights and ordered her release from a zoo.

Second, the large legal and philosophical questions in this case hinge on a bit of grammar. A conjunction, to be precise.

This could open the door for other animals to be considered legal persons.

For the most part, courts in New York have denied Wise’s petitions and appeals on various technicalities. Only in Tommy’s case did a judge issue a decision based on the merits of the argument. In that case, issued in December 2014, an appeals court in New York’s third judicial department ruled against Wise. The judge cited the definition of personhood in Black’s Law Dictionary, which states that “a person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights and duties.”

The court placed special emphasis on the word “and.” While the chimps’ intelligence might entitle them to “rights,” the court reasoned, they still did not qualify as persons because they “can’t bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities, or be held legally accountable for their actions.”

That decision set a precedent, and a Manhattan court relied on it when it denied a subsequent habeas corpus petition for Tommy and Kiko in March. Legal options for the chimps appeared to have run out.

But Wise and his team felt something was off about the 2014 decision. “We thought, That can’t be right,” he 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.”

“Being autonomous should be sufficient condition for a chimp to have rights.”

So the Nonhuman Rights Project began to look more closely at that definition of personhood in Black’s Law Dictionary. It was based on a single, obscure source: the 10th edition of Sir John Salmond’s Jurisprudence, published in 1947. A volunteer attorney named Spencer Lo contacted the Library of Congress to track down a copy of the text. A few weeks later, the librarians sent Lo a scan of the page in question. Sure enough, Wise’s hunch had been right: Salmond’s definition of personhood said “rights or duties,” not “rights and duties.”

On April 6, an attorney with the Nonhuman Rights Project wrote to Bryan Garner, an editor with Black’s Law Dictionary, and flagged the error. Garner wrote back the same day, acknowledged the mistake, and promised to fix it in the next edition.

Wise says the implications for his work are enormous. In the short term, he’s hopeful that the change in Black’s Law Dictionary will help reverse the appellate court’s 2014 decision, and the Nonhuman Rights Project has already filed a motion notifying the court of the expected change.

There are long-term implications, too. In particular, if the Nonhuman Rights Project is able to get a legal foothold by winning a habeas case on behalf of a chimpanzee, that could open the door for other animals to be considered legal persons, as well. Zoos, circuses, research facilities, and other organizations that keep highly intelligent animals in captivity would all be affected.

“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.”