Court Explains Why Chimpanzees Aren’t “Persons” For Purposes of New York’s Habeas Corpus Statute

An upstate appellate court recently held – despite contrary suggestions in popular culture – that chimpanzees are not “persons” (at least not in the legal sense).

In People ex rel. Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery, the court affirmed the dismissal of a habeas corpus proceeding to secure the release of a chimpanzee named Tommy. Specifically, it addressed the “novel question of whether a chimpanzee is a ‘person’ entitled to the rights and protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus.”

“The common law writ of habeas corpus, as codified by CPLR article 70, provides a summary procedure by which a ‘person’ who has been illegally imprisoned or otherwise restrained in his or her liberty can challenge the legality of the detention.”

The court reasoned:

[A]lthough the dispositive inquiry is whether chimpanzees are entitled to the right to be free from bodily restraint such that they may be deemed “persons” subject to the benefits of habeas corpus, legal personhood has consistently been defined in terms of both rights and duties. …

[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.

It concluded by noting that its “rejection of a rights paradigm for animals does not, however, leave them defenseless”, and citing various statutory protections for animals (such as Agriculture and Markets Law § 353, which prohibits the torture or unjustifiable killing of animals).

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