“Monkey See, Monkey Sue?” American and Argentine Courts Decide Whether to Extend Legal Rights to Apes

BY VALERIE TOTH- Over the past century, many barriers to political and civil rights based on gender, race, and sexual orientation have gradually been eliminated. Will the modern “human” rights movement evolve to eliminate barriers to these rights based on species? Advocates argue that the great apes—gorillas, orangutans, bonobos and chimpanzees—should be granted personhood status, with the right to contest their incarcerations, live in habitats allowing greater mobility, and freedom from medical testing.  Great apes share close to 100% of the DNA found in humans, are able to understand and communicate with their human caretakers, and share many of our emotional and personality traits.

 In a span of less than three weeks, two courts in the Americas have had the opportunity to consider the matter and come to entirely different conclusions. In Nonhuman Rights Project v. Lavery, a New York state appellate court denied a writ of habeas corpus contesting Tommy the chimpanzee’s caged confinement in a private home.[i] Lawyers argued that he was being detained against his will and demonstrated a degree of “autonomy, self-awareness, and self-determination” similar to that of humans. Several expert affidavits were presented to the court as evidence that chimpanzees have an advanced capacity to understand and resent their confinement and isolation, and have a documented “interest in personal autonomy and freedom . . . .”  The court, while noting the complex cognitive abilities of chimpanzees, ultimately held that “[l]egal personhood has been . . . defined in terms of both rights and duties” and that  “chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions.”  The key requirement to legal personhood and possession of such “rights” was the corresponding duties owed to others.  This distinction explains why legal personhood has been granted to corporations—who owe duties to employees, the public and shareholders—and not to animals, even those that share many important human characteristics.

An Argentine court, in contrast, granted a writ of habeas corpus to an orangutan named Sandra, who has been residing in a Buenos Aires zoo for 20 years. Lawyers argued that Sandra was a person in the philosophical sense, not the biological one, and that her confinement in the zoo was an illegal deprivation of her freedom. After reviewing evidence on the orangutan’s advanced cognitive and emotional abilities, the court held on December 21st, that she should not be classified under the law as a “thing or object” but instead as a “non-human person,” complete with limited rights to be claimed on her behalf. This was the first time a court anywhere had found that certain legal rights of humans could be extended to highly intelligent, sentient animals. Absent an appeal, Sandra will be transferred to a primate sanctuary in Brazil where she will live in a much larger habitat with complete autonomy.

 Spain, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and several other European countries have passed legislation banning the use of apes in medical experiments and regulating their treatment.  It remains to be seen whether other countries in Latin America will follow Argentina’s lead in judicially granting legal rights to primates. For now, it appears as though U.S. courts will leave it up to state legislatures to extend protections and regulate the conditions under which primates live.

[i] People ex rel. Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery, No. 518336, 2014 WL 6802767, at *3 (N.Y. App. Div. Dec. 4, 2014)

Photo Source: Animal Liberation Front

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