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Hercules and Leo: Judge’s Decision

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Justice Barbara Jaffe at the hearing for Hercules and Leo

July 30th: Justice Barbara Jaffe has issued her ruling on whether the two chimpanzees held captive at a Stony Brook University laboratory have the legal right to be set free and sent to a sanctuary. Bottom line of her 33-page decision:

“For now,” she says, she is bound to follow what a state appellate court wrote in the case of another chimpanzee, Tommy, whose case is now before the New York Court of Appeals. And she concluded that she cannot herself free Hercules and Leo, however much she sympathizes with their situation.

Echoing the arguments of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) that, as cognitively complex, autonomous beings, the two chimpanzees should be viewed as “legal persons”, who have the right to their own lives, rather than as pieces of property that belong to a laboratory, Jaffe wrote:

“Legal personhood is not necessarily synonymous with being human … Rather, the parameters of legal personhood have been and will continue to be discussed and debated by legal theorists, commentators, and courts and will not be focused on semantics or biology, even philosophy, but on the proper allocation of rights under the law, asking, in effect, who counts under our law.”

However, since in two other suits brought by the NhRP, the intermediate Appellate Courts have declined to recognize chimps Tommy and Kiko as having legal rights, Jaffe said she was bound by those decisions.

“Efforts to extend legal rights to chimpanzees are thus understandable; some day they may even succeed … For now, however, given the precedent to which I am bound it is hereby ordered that the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is denied…”

Her decision opens the door for this case to be taken to the appellate level. Ultimately, however, one or more of these cases is likely to end up in New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, which is where major precedents are set. Lower court judges are generally unwilling to set major precedents like this themselves.

Like Justice Jaffe, the two judges who presided over the cases of Tommy and Kiko also expressed support for the suits before denying the NhRP’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In the case of Tommy, who is being held in a garage at a used trailer lot, the Hon Joseph Sise said:

“Your impassioned representations to the Court are quite impressive …  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.”

And in the case of Kiko, who is chained at a private home, the Hon. Ralph A. Boniello III, said that he did not want to be the first “to make that leap of faith.” And knowing that the case will now go to appeal, he wished the NhRP team good luck.

All of this is what has been fully expected. No nonhuman animal has ever yet been recognized as having any legal right, and making a change in this long tradition must ultimately rest with the state’s highest court. As NhRP President Steven M. Wise put it, “We’re very encouraged by the judge’s ruling since she has basically accepted all our arguments regarding the legal personhood of cognitively complex nonhuman animals.”

Meanwhile, Stony Brook University, apparently scared that they will ultimately lose their case and be compelled to free Hercules and Leo, has announced that they are shutting down the laboratory experiments involving the two chimpanzees.

Susan Larson, the lead researcher, told Newsday that her experiments involving Hercules and Leo have ended and that the two chimpanzees chimps will be leaving the university soon. Their retirement comes at a “fortuitous” time, she said.

Adding to the pressure on Larson and her colleagues is the fact that last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to classify all captive chimpanzees as endangered. Larson said she expects Hercules and Leo to be retired before the rule goes into effect in September.

The NhRP says it is willing to assist Stony Brook in sending Hercules and Leo to a sanctuary that’s a member of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, but that if Stony Brook attempts to move Hercules and Leo to any other place, it will seek an injunction to prevent this move pending the outcome of all appeals, as it succeeded in doing in Tommy’s case last year.

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