An update on the nonhuman rights project

A little while ago I wrote about the litigation in progress to try to free two chimpanzees being held captive for experimentation in a University laboratory. Lawyers for the chimps (Hercules and Leo) argued on the basis of habeus corpus, a writ in common law which provides a way for detainees to end unlawful imprisonment. It was first used to free slaves in the 18th century.

The judge presiding over the case recently returned a decision, which although does not go so far as granting habeus corpus to these two chimps, was encouraging nevertheless. This is because the judge said she is bound by another case which is currently before a higher court, the Court of Appeals (I hope I’ve got this right as there’s almost a bit too much legal mumbo jumbo for me) and she has paved the way for them to appeal Hercules and Leo’s case. Steven M. Wise, lawyer for the chimps, has a more detailed explanation here:

Here’s what the judge said:

She determined that the so-called “floodgates argument is not a cogent reason for denying relief.” She said that “persons” are not restricted to human beings, and that who is a “person” is not a question of biology, but of public policy and principle. “(T)he parameters of legal personhood have long been and will continue to be discussed and debated by legal theorists, commentators, and courts,” she wrote, ”and will not be focused on semantics or biology, or even philosophy, but on the proper allocation of rights under the law, asking, in effect, who counts under our law.”


“If rights were defined,” Justice Jaffe wrote, quoting the recent gay marriage case, “by who exercised them in the past, then received practices could serve as their own continued justification and new groups could not invoke rights once denied.” She concluded:

This all sounds very encouraging. If you want to support this project then please do so here.

Recently I read about the “comfort women” who were enslaved by the Imperial Japanese Army in WWII. I couldn’t help but wonder what made them think it was ok to kidnap women and children and rape and abuse them? How could they have justified this to themselves? I feel the same way about the enslavement of chimpanzees. What makes us think it’s ok to do this? Is it because no-one has stopped to think whether this is ethically acceptable? Or is it because we all turn a blind eye and become implicitly complicit? Is this how people reacted to widespread slavery one hundred years ago? By looking the other way? Or convincing themselves that it wasn’t wrong?

Here’s what I wrote at the end of my last post about this topic: Chimpanzees share almost 99% of our DNA. We can donate blood to them and they can donate blood to us. They are clever, they see themselves as having a past and a future, they form strong social bonds, and have a social culture. They use tools, care for their young, and they are capable of suffering. They are not things. We have no right to exploit them and to imprison them.