Habeas Chimpanzee

Original Article

“Tommy” and other chimpanzees are the subjects of several lawsuits in New York seeking writs of habeas corpus and “immediate release from illegal detention.” These lawsuits, the doing of the Nonhuman Rights Project, are not a surprise. As already noted in these pages (“Animal Desires,” April 9, 2012), NRP volunteer lawyers have spent years researching the common law of states, looking for legal precedents that can be twisted to support declaring intelligent animals such as chimps and dolphins to be “legal persons.”

The New York litigation is based on a 1772 King’s Bench ruling that ordered an escaped and recaptured African-American slave named James Somersett freed as a “person” rather than sent to Jamaica as chattel. Think about that for a moment. If anyone ever claimed that American slaves were morally equivalent to chimpanzees, charges of racism would rightly fly. But the Nonhuman Rights Project makes the very same argument—just the other way around.

The chimps in the cases are owned by a roadside zoo, Stony Brook University, and a private individual who keeps one at home. The NRP’s press release alleges that the chimps at the zoo have been neglected or abused. But ending alleged mistreatment isn’t the prime purpose of the case. Rather, the goal is to force inclusion of animals, along with people, in the moral community.

Indeed, according to the group’s website, its investigators have known of the alleged cruelty for some time, but apparently never reported it to the authorities. “Three months” after first discovering the chimps’ poor care, NRP investigators visited the zoo again and learned that two of the animals were dead.

Still they did nothing. Later, they found Tommy kept “in a small cage at the back of a dark shed,” clearly improper confinement for a social animal. Yet even this abuse they did not report, though doing so would likely have brought Tommy immediate relief. Instead, the NRP reports, “the conclusion of the legal team was to move as quickly as possible to file the suit,” pressing toward their ideological goals rather than seeking to secure Tommy’s present welfare.

To understand the importance of these lawsuits, it is necessary to appreciate the distinction between “animal welfare” and “animal rights.” The former concept accepts that it is moral for humans to own animals and use them for our benefit, though we have a solemn duty to treat animals with respect and use humane methods of husbandry. These principles are embodied in numerous state criminal statutes against animal abuse—such as those used to prosecute Michael Vick—and in myriad other laws, regulations, and ethical protocols.

In contrast, animal rights is an ideology that perceives animals as having the same right not to be owned as humans. Ultimately, the movement seeks to prohibit all domestication of animals.

Its activists are smart enough to know that achieving their end will take a long time, so they strategize. The NRP’s lawsuit and others like it—such as PETA’s recent failed attempt to have SeaWorld’s orcas declared slaves—focus on intelligent animals for which people feel empathy. This helps erode the “species barrier” between the perceived moral value of humans and animals. Eventually, the movement aims to destroy human exceptionalism—denigrated in animal rights ideology as “speciesism,” as odious as racism—and bring about a world in which human duties to animals are as rigorous as those we owe each other. (Animals will, of course, not owe us or each other any duties, a concept beyond their comprehension.)

Declaring some animals legal persons, in turn, will open the door to one of the animal rights movement’s most coveted goals: “animal standing,” allowing suits to be brought in the name of animals. Once animals can sue, movement lawyers will descend on animal industries like locusts.

Lest some readers complacently assume that no court would grant an animal a writ of habeas corpus—one nearly did. In 2005, a Brazilian judge heard a case for a writ on behalf of Suica, a chimpanzee, and appeared on the cusp of granting the request when the chimp died, mooting the case. “Criminal procedural law is not static,” the disappointed judge wrote in the order of dismissal, “rather [it is] subject to constant changes, and new decisions have to adapt to new times.”

That’s precisely the kind of judge that the NRP hopes to draw in just one case: a jurist who wants to make history as the first to grant rights and personhood to an animal. As Steven Wise, a law professor and the moving force behind the NRP’s state litigation strategy, has written, granting a single animal legal personhood would open the floodgates. Should that happen, the deleterious cultural and economic consequences would be staggering.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.