Published on:

April 27, 2015

On Redefining Personhood

By Saryta Rodriguez

One week ago today, history was made. The legal definition of personhood was turned on its head, but, first, a bit of background:

  For years, the NhRP has endeavored to redefine personhood. On April 20th of this year, the group scored a major victory for the Animal Liberation Movement.
For years, the NhRP has endeavored to redefine personhood. On April 20th of this year, the group scored a major victory for the Animal Liberation Movement.

For years, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has endeavored to apply the writ of habeas corpus to chimpanzees. Their third attempt to do so occurred in April 2014. The New York Times reported that a chimp named Tommy, with the help of the Nonhuman Rights Project, was suing his captors for unsuitable living conditions, including solitary confinement.

Tommy was once a circus chimpanzee, whose caregiver recently passed away, leaving him under the care of the man referred to as “the repairman.” Wise met Tommy and the repairman at Circle L Trailer, the owner of which apparently also makes his living renting out reindeer during the holiday season for photos and such, including commercials for Macy’s and Mercedes-Benz. (No data concerning the fate of these poor souls was provided by the article.)

Steven Wise (NhRP President), Natalie Prosin (NhRP Executive Director) and Elizabeth Stein (New-York-based animal rights expert) filed their petition at the Fulton County Courthouse in Johnstown, NY. The petition described in detail Tommy’s miserable living conditions, such as his isolation and lack of space, and culminated in a series of nine affidavits from primatologists around the world asserting the cognitive sophistication of chimpanzees and the suffering Tommy was being forced to endure. In essence: “Chimps have feelings, JUST LIKE US!”

Unfortunately, on December 4, 2014, the Supreme Court declared that Tommy is not a “person” entitled to a common law writ of habeas corpus because he is “unable to bear duties or responsibilities.” Roughly two weeks later, the NhRP filed a motion seeking leave to appeal to New York’s highest court on the grounds that this decision contradicts previous decisions made by the Court of Appeals and that numerous cases bestow personhood on petitioners who are unable to bear duties or responsibilities. The motion was denied in January 2015.

…Thus went the third attempt.

I guess the fourth time’s the charm. On April 20, 2015, the NhRP announced that its fourth demand for a hearing under habeas corpus on behalf of nonhumans since the organization’s inception has met with success. For the first time, in May 2015, a hearing will be held on behalf of two chimpanzees—Hercules and Leo—who are being unlawfully detained at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York.

While Justice Jaffe, who issued the decision to hold the hearing on April 20th, downplays the significance of the habeas corpus statute and New York State court spokesman David Bookstaver maintains that “All this does is allow the parties to argue their case in court,” this unprecedented event will inevitably call into question the legal definition of personhood and, independent of the results of the hearing itself, I anticipate a domino effect in the months and years to follow.

NhRP is calling for the release of Hercules and Leo to a sanctuary in Florida, and the burden will rest on Stony Brook University to prove that there is just cause for further detaining these individuals.

I wrote here about my concerns regarding single-issue campaigns. There, Brian brought up the NhRP’s work as an example of single-issue campaigns that have potential for continued positive impact, a statement with which I agree. Unlike campaigns which fail to challenge the status quo—the foundational notion that animals are property—the NhRP’s work is challenging the very notion of what it means to be a person. This work forces us to consider animals as individuals, which can be challenging when talking about systemic violence against animals such as factory farming. While we at DxE believe in the importance of telling stories, it is ultimately impossible to tell the story of every individual animal currently being abused and exploited. Allowing them their day in court, however reluctantly courts might be doing so (one does get the sense that Jaffe and others are shying away from accepting responsibility for the major implications of this case on the Animal Liberation Movement, independent of the case’s outcome), gives at least some nonhuman animals a seat at the table.

Now we just have to multiply those seats. As usual, I’ll take a moment to remind us that our work is not over. For starters, it comes as no surprise to me that the first nonhuman animal to get a seat at the legal table is a chimpanzee. While chimpanzees such as Leo and Hercules are still exploited for scientific testing, held captive at zoos and victims of other violations, humans generally have an easier time identifying with them than with others.  They look like us, their intelligence is similar to ours and can be measured in similar ways, and they can even be taught to “speak our language” via sign language and computer use. Our next hurdle is to get those who are less like us a seat; otherwise, we risk reinforcing a false speciesist hierarchy, the Orwellian nightmare: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

There is also, as is all too often the case with human legislation, the matter of access. Hercules and Leo are lucky that someone found out about them and reported their plight. They are lucky that the NhRP is willing to fight for them, and has the resources to do so. One way in which all of us in the animal liberation community, even without law degrees, can contribute to the mission of giving nonhumans legal personhood is to keep abreast of situations like that of Hercules and Leo. Research as often as we can the plight of nonhumans near us, and report grievances to organizations such as the NhRP and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. (If you are able, these groups could also make great use of financial donations.)

We can all also contribute by taking part in campaigns that challenge the values of society at large. As DxE Bay Area organizer Chris Van Breen put it: “After all, judges are a part of society and are susceptible to social and political pressure…If we want laws to be enforced, we need to put social support behind them.” In short, one of the most valuable things we can do is what many of us are already doing. It is to put animal liberation on the public agenda—and keep it there.

The hearing will be held on Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Check back here for an update!