Possumus habere corpus?
May we have the body?
On April 20, a New York state judge granted an order to “show cause & writ of habeas corpus” to the Nonhuman Rights Project (NRP) on behalf of two chimps, Hercules and Leo. The defendant, president of Stony Brook University, must prove to the court that the two biomedical laboratory chimpanzees are being lawfully detained.
The decision to acknowledge two chimps as subject to the law of habeas corpus was considered a monumental breakthrough in animal welfare rights. According to a statement issued by NRP, “Under the law of New York State, only a ‘legal person’ may have an order to show cause and writ of habeas corpus issued in his or her behalf. The Court has therefore implicitly determined that Hercules and Leo are ‘persons.’”
However, only 48 hours later, Judge Barbara Jaffe amended her decision (PDF), crossing out “& writ of habeas corpus” and thereby casting some doubt as to whether Hercules and Leo are still the legal subjects protected by Article One of the Constitution or if the judge would simply rather not have Hercules and Leo brought to appear in the courtroom just yet.
The trouble surrounding animals—or rather, “nonhumans”—in law is not a modern quandary. The fascinating battle over animals’ legal rights goes all the way back to the 17th century:
A Quick Legislative History of Animal Welfare in the United States:
1641—The first North American legal code that protects domestic animals was signed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which prohibited tyranny and cruelty toward all animals used by “men.”
1958—Humane Methods of Slaughter Act: President Dwight Eisenhower signs an act that requires food packers to provide anesthetization, or “stunning,” before the killing of livestock, except in the case of Kosher slaughter.
1959—Wild Horse Annie Act: prevents the poisoning of watering holes of wild horses as well as using motorized vehicles to round them up to sell to slaughter.
1966—Laboratory Animal Welfare Act and Endangered Species Preservation Act passed.
1970—Horse Protection Act outlaws soring for Tennessee Walking Horses in show.
1972—Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits killing, taking, or harassing any marine mammals without a permit.
1976—The Animal Welfare Act is amended to force animal brokers and handlers to adhere to humane standards, and authorizes a civil $1,000 penalty for infractions, outlaws dog fighting, and requires all government agencies to comply with the act.
1979—Amendment to the International Fishery Conservation and Management Act cuts the nation’s fish allocation by 50 percent. In the same year, the Elephant Protection Act is passed.
1985—Improved Standards for Laboratory Animals Act more vigorously regulates issues related to animal pain, distress, and rewrites laws regulating oversight on animal experimentation.
1990—Pet Theft Act requires pounds to hold dogs and cats for five days before releasing them to dealers. Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act sets standards for the labeling of canned tuna.
1992—Passage of Wild Bird Conservation Act, Driftnet Fishery Conservation Act and International Dolphin Conservation Act, which further protects dolphins from being harmed by tuna fishing.
2000—Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act provides a national security system for chimps no longer used in experiments. The Great Ape Conservation Act establishes a $5 million fund to help global great ape populations. The Bear Protection Act and Shark Finning Prohibition Act also enacted.
2003—Captive Wildlife Safety Act prevents exotic big cats from being transported between states for ownership as pets.
2010—Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act reestablishes an overturned ban on the production and distribution of videos depicting animal cruelty.
The history of nonhumans in human courtrooms has a storied past. Surprisingly, (or perhaps not), animals have been frequently charged as defendants under laws written for humans. Animals faced criminal charges as early as 1266 in France, where a trial led to the execution of a pig in Fontenay-aux-Roses. Similar trials occurred all over Europe and the U.S. (PDF) well into the 18th century.
Animals were routinely “tried” on criminal charges, including murder, which led to “defendants” being exiled or executed. However, in a notable case in 1750, a female donkey was acquitted of a bestiality charge following testimony to the animal’s good behavior and virtuosity, which ultimately led to the remaining (human) defendants being sentenced to death.
Only recently have legal scholars and the courts begun to clarify how human laws affect animals, where animal rights overlap with human rights, and whether or not an animal can enjoy the right of personhood.
For instance, in November 2014, an Argentinean zoo was sued over the detainment of an orangutan named Sandra, which resulted in an ambiguous decision that deflected jurisdiction but also acknowledged her nonhuman “rights” and ultimately authorized her transfer to a sanctuary.
And lately in the U.S., the Nonhuman Rights Project (NRP), founded by New York lawyer Stephen M. Wise, has enjoyed some success in its effort to “change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty.”
Since 2013 the NRP has filed three separate cases, including the one concerning Hercules and Leo, on behalf of four chimpanzees in New York State, arguing that the “persons” should be moved from laboratory to sanctuary.