A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Chimpanzee Personhood: What the Judges Said

It’s a little unusual for a judge to wish you good luck as you head off to appeal his decision. But that’s exactly what happened when the Nonhuman Rights Project went before the Hon. Joseph Sise in a county court last week.

It was the first of three court proceedings on behalf of four chimpanzees in New York State – Tommy, Kiko, Hercules and Leo – whom we’re seeking to have released to sanctuaries.

“We didn’t expect the strong words of encouragement and support from the judges.”Tommy, whose petition was heard by Judge Sise, is living in a small cage in a dark shed at a used trailer lot. As soon as the judge was handed the petition by the clerk of the court, he called our team into the court room for a hearing, summoned the stenographer, and began peppering our two attorneys with all the kinds of questions that we could expect to come up at a higher (appeals) court.

It quickly became apparent that what Judge Sise was doing was enabling us to get on the official record a full explanation as to why Tommy should be considered a “legal person” with the capacity for basic legal rights. After an hour of back-and-forth (some of which was off the record), he gave a ruling that was partly what we expected, but partly also quite unexpected:

“Your impassioned representations to the Court are quite impressive. The Court will not entertain the application, will not recognize a chimpanzee as a human or as a person who can seek a writ of habeas corpus under Article 70 [a procedural statute]. I will be available as the judge for any other lawsuit to right any wrongs that are done to this chimpanzee because I understand what you’re saying. You make a very strong argument. However, I do not agree with the argument only insofar as Article 70 applies to chimpanzees.

“Good luck with your venture. I’m sorry I can’t sign the order, but I hope you continue. As an animal lover, I appreciate your work.”

Our lawsuit is novel territory, by any standard, and there are no precedents on which lower court judges can rely. So, recognizing that he was unwilling to expand the common law of New York State on his own, Judge Sise was sending the case up to the Intermediate Appellate Court since in New York State there is an automatic right of appeal in habeas corpus petitions.

The other judge who held a hearing was the Hon. Ralph A. Boniello III, who heard the case of Kiko. Kiko lives at a private home and wears a chain around his neck. Judge Boniello also allowed our attorneys to place their arguments on the record. And when he, too, denied the petition on the grounds that Kiko is not a “legal person” for purposes of habeas corpus, he stated that he did not want to be the first “to make that leap of faith.” Knowing that the case will now go to appeal, he wished our team good luck.

Hercules and Leo are at a laboratory at Stony Brook University, where they’re being studied by people trying to learn how Australopithecus hominids might have learned to walk on two feet three million years ago. In their case, the judge, the Hon. W. Gerard Asher, did not hold a hearing. Instead, he wrote a brief decision in which he denied the petition for habeas corpus on the basis, once again, that chimpanzees are not considered “legal persons.”

All three cases now move on to the New York Appellate Courts.

Expanding the common law is typically left up to the higher courtsAttorney Steven M. Wise, who is President of the Nonhuman Rights Project, says that what happened in these lower courts was about as good as we could have hoped for. One of our concerns, for example, was that the petitions might be denied on a point of law that we hadn’t considered, in which case the question of whether a chimpanzee can be considered to be a “legal person” with the capacity for a legal right would never have been able to be argued at the appellate level. That didn’t happen. Nor did any of the judges consider these cases dismissible on other grounds.

“These were the outcomes we expected,” he said at an impromptu press conference outside the Suffolk County Court. “All nonhuman animals have been legal things for centuries. That is not going to change easily. What we didn’t expect, however, were the strong words of encouragement and support from the judges and their acknowledgement of the strength of our arguments. So we are now in a good position to appeal each decision to the appropriate New York Appellate Division.”

Whatever happens at this next level, this is just the beginning of a long campaign. As Attorney Wise explained, “The struggle to attain the personhood of such an extraordinarily cognitively complex nonhuman animal as a chimpanzee has barely begun.”

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Full details of the three cases are on the website of the Nonhuman Rights Project. They include the complete court filings and the transcript of the hearing with Judge Sise.

Also, I’m part of the Nonhuman Rights Project. We’re a small organization and I act as its communication director.