While prospects for the elephants remain unknown, NhRP has made strides in other litigation. In 2015, at the behest of the organization, Justice Barbara Jaffe became the first judge in history to issue a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo. The legal document was later amended to strike out the phrase "writ of habeas corpus." Court appeals failed to obtain "legal persons" status for the chimps.
The New Iberia Research Center (NIRC), where the chimps were born in 2006, had previously leased Hercules and Leo to Stony Brook University for a study on bipedal walking. After the litigation, Hercules and Leo were returned to NIRC in 2015.
According to the journal Science, on March 21 of this year, NIRC moved the primates to the Project Chimps sanctuary in Georgia. Wise has "serious concerns" about Project Chimps. For example, he said that "there is only one outdoor area for the chimps at the site." He told Science, though, “I’m glad to hear Hercules and Leo are getting out of New Iberia."
Wise hopes that the two males can be moved to another sanctuary, Save the Chimps, which is in Florida and has offered to house the primates at no extra cost to NIRC. Like the three elephants, it remains unknown for now what will ultimately happen to these two chimps.
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Jaffe's issuance of the writ of habeas corpus, however, marks a legal milestone that was followed in 2016 by a similar judgment in Argentina granting "nonhuman person" status to a chimp named Cecilia. The chimp was ordered removed from a zoo and transferred to a sanctuary.
Approximately 2,000 chimpanzees are kept in captivity in the US alone. According to the World Animal Foundation, about 300 are in zoos, and the remaining 1,700 were bred for medical research. The situation seems monumental when other animals are factored in. There are 100 million animals held captive for entertainment and research purposes, based on Humane Society International estimates.
A recent survey conducted by the Sentience Institute, which was replicated by Oklahoma State University, found that nearly 50 percent of Americans desire a ban on slaughterhouses. A recent poll commissioned by NhRP found that almost half of all participants "agreed with a statement saying that animals deserve the same rights as humans," and "about half said they would support legislation to recognize legal rights for some animals."
The legalese of personhood is hard for many people to grasp, though, and the studies indicate that the public is divided nearly 50-50 in their views of animal rights.
Richard Cupp, a professor at Pepperdine School of Law, told Seeker that he supports legal efforts to improve the welfare of animals, but said the term “animal rights” is vague.
“My experience is that many people who initially say they support 'animal rights' actually support imposing appropriate legal responsibilities on humans to prohibit mistreatment of animals, rather than supporting legal personhood and accompanying legal rights for animals," he said.
The arguments against granting animals personhood rights, he said, range from chimps lacking "a sufficient level of moral agency to be justly held legally accountable" to "the potential societal chaos" that would ensue should legal personhood be extended to nonhuman animals.
"Rejecting nonhuman animal, legal personhood does not imply being satisfied with the status quo regarding how we treat animals," Cupp said. "Society has made important advances in animal welfare in recent years, and we are probably closer to the beginning of this significant period of animal welfare, legal evolution than we are to its future high point. As a society we need to continue our evolution toward increased protection of animals, but they should not be made legal persons."
He acknowledges that lawmakers and others need to do a better job of being explicit in statutes, ordinances, and court decisions that sentient animals are different from inanimate property. "Sentience" itself is a loaded topic, but Cupp uses the word to describe animals capable of suffering.
His views of the issue will soon be published in the University of Cincinnati Law Review. A draft of the article is available online. As Cupp admits in the article, however, not granting chimpanzees and other animals personhood does mean that they are "still property" in the eyes of the law.
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If the New York court eventually does issue an "order to show cause" pursuant to the writ of habeas corpus, a hearing would take place, as it did in Hercules and Leo's case, which would shift the burden of proof from the NhRP to those currently holding the chimps captive. Then, if the owners cannot justify the legality of their detainment of the chimps, the court could rule that Kiko and Tommy are legal persons with the right to bodily liberty and offer "relief," which might mean transferring the chimps to a sanctuary.
If the owners cannot prove the legality of their detainment of the chimps, the court could then offer "relief," which might mean transferring the chimps to a sanctuary. Such a ruling would likely serve as precedent for other parties to seek habeas corpus relief for other chimpanzees in New York and could lead to similar rulings in other states.
A potential complication in the New York case has to do with the current location and status of Tommy. In 2016, various media outlets including The Dodo reported that Tommy was donated to the DeYoung Family Zoo in Wallace, Michigan, in September 2015.
Brittany Peet, director of captive animal law enforcement for PETA Foundation, told Seeker that New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets records provide evidence that the donation occurred. Representatives for the zoo, which is seasonal and reopens this year on May 1, have claimed to be unfamiliar with any chimpanzee named Tommy and have not confirmed his existence.
PETA filed a complaint against the zoo in 2016, which suggests that, even though the plaintiffs deny having a chimp named Tommy, they do "have a chimpanzee" that is then referred to as "Chimpanzee number 2" as well as a chimp called "Louie." PETA even issued a petition, urging that the zoo retire their chimpanzees to a reputable sanctuary.
The number-2 terminology is a stark reminder of what can happen when animals become nameless property. Death records often follow suit, which could mean that if Tommy did die, his name — and therefore the loss of him as a unique individual — might never be known.
Wise, however, said, "We have a strong basis for believing Tommy is alive and still in New York."
If that is the case, his condition remains unknown.
As for Kiko, NhRP believes that he is now in a cage in a cement storefront attached to a home in a residential area of Niagra Falls, New York. Whatever one thinks of this unusual arrangement, no welfare law appears to have been violated with the confinement of Kiko and Tommy.
"But this does not mean that their conditions of life are morally acceptable as they currently stand," Peña-Guzmán said.
He urges the public to work to pass stricter animal welfare laws, report cases of animal abuse, vote for candidates who support animal welfare and animal rights, and to boycott places of business that place chimpanzees in ethically inappropriate housing.
Sebo said, "We should all be supporting efforts to retire chimpanzees to sanctuaries where they can live freely and in the company of other chimpanzees."