UPDATE: The Groundbreaking Case of Hercules and Leo

UPDATE: The Groundbreaking Case of Hercules and Leo

By Saryta Rodriguez


Earlier this year, I blogged about the Nonhuman Rights Project’s case against Stonybrook University on behalf of two captive chimpanzees named Hercules and Leo. While a decision has not yet been reached, here’s a brief update:

On May 27, 2015, for the first time in U.S. history, a case aiming to apply the writ of habeas corpus to nonhuman persons had its day in court. The hearing was held at the New York County Supreme Court in Manhattan, NY. Justice Jaffe countered the claim that there is no legal precedent for such a case (made by Assistant Attorney General Christopher Coulston) by declaring that the crux of common law is that it “evolves according to new discoveries and social mores.” In so doing, intentionally or otherwise, Jaffe highlighted the importance of consistently reexamining our legal system in light of our evolving morality— which, at a thrillingly accelerating rate, is evolving to encompass compassion and respect for nonhumans as well as humans in our society.

“Isn’t it incumbent on judiciaries to at least consider whether a class of beings may be granted a right?”
Justice Jaffe, May 27, 2015

In a surprisingly balanced report on Fox News following the proceedings, NhRP was quoted as demanding: “Chimps, although not human, should be designated persons, which would make their captivity illegal.”

Steven Wise asserts in court that Hercules and Leo are someones, not somethings, and, as such, they deserve legal protection from unjustified captivity.

Steven Wise asserts in court that Hercules and Leo are someones, not somethings, and, as such, they deserve legal protection from unjustified captivity.

Steven Wise said in court of chimpanzees, “They are the kinds of beings who can remember the past, plan ahead for the future…Which is one of the reasons why imprisoning a chimpanzee is at least as bad and maybe even worse than imprisoning a human being.” While the inclusion of “maybe even worse than” was perhaps unnecessary, the point being made is clear: chimpanzees are thinking, feeling beings who should not be detained and used as mere objects or tools.

The office of New York’s Attorney General, representing the university, desperately suggested that sending the chimpanzees to a sanctuary in Florida, NhRP’s intention, would simply be replacing one type of confinement for another. Anyone who has actually visited an animal sanctuary knows that this is patently false. While technically the chimps would still be in captivity—as they must be, because, regrettably, we humans have already robbed them of the ability to fend for themselves in the wild—they would enjoy both freedom to engage in their natural tendencies and socialize with others and safety from experimentation and other unnecessary human intrusion into their lives. This, and nothing less, is what chimpanzees—indeed, all animals—deserve.

Controversially, Wise likened the plight of the captive chimpanzees to that of enslaved African-Americans in U.S. history, reminding us all of the ongoing debates regarding the difference between a legitimate comparison and appropriation. I for one certainly hope that such a debate does not eclipse the matter at hand: the fate of Hercules and Leo.

The controversial comment reads: “We had a history of that for hundreds of years saying black people are not part of society and you can enslave them. That wasn’t right. It didn’t work.” When one considers this alongside Justice Jaffe’s statement about a “class of beings,” the comparison makes perfect sense. The idea here is not to compare individuals within different groups but to uphold the tradition of consistently challenging who in our society has rights, and who doesn’t.

Coulston reasoned, “The reality is these are fundamentally different species. They have no ability to partake in human society.” However, as NhRP and others have already stated, in response to NhRP’s past attempts to apply habeas corpus to nonhumans that were denied without a hearing on these and similar grounds, not all humans are able to “partake in human society” either. Not everyone can vote. Not everyone can have a job. And so forth. Still, we protect these humans. We do not enslave them based on their limited abilities.

I look forward to hearing these defenses employed on behalf of other nonhumans in the years to come. Much of the trial of Hercules and Leo has revealed scientific information about chimpanzees, emphasizing their intelligence. However, when personhood is finally granted to one nonhuman, inevitably animal liberation organizations such as NhRP will endeavor to apply the law to other nonhumans—including those who may be less intelligent than apes. This should not—cannot—serve as grounds for dismissal of these future cases.

This case, coupled with PETA’s recent decision to file suit against Whole Foods for false advertising, serves as proof that activism works—that when people speak loudly and confidently on behalf of those whose cries are so often ignored by society, change is not only possible, but also inevitable.

Jaffe is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!