Animal rights group asks New York judge to free research chimps

Attorney Steven Wise (second, left), President of the animal rights group Nonhuman Rights Project makes an argument as Assistant Attorney General Christopher Coulston (second, right) listens in New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of
Attorney Steven Wise (second, left), President of the animal rights group Nonhuman Rights Project makes an argument as Assistant Attorney General Christopher Coulston (second, right) listens in New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City on May 27, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (Reuters) - US animal-rights advocates on Wednesday called on a New York court to order a state university to release two adult chimpanzee research subjects, contending that their captivity amounts to unlawful imprisonment.

The Nonhuman Rights Project argued before a New York State Supreme Court acting justice that the chimpanzees, named Hercules and Leo, are entitled to legal protection, noting that the species has demonstrated language skills and the ability to pass on culture to younger generations.

"They're self-conscious," said Steven Wise, president of the group, which has sued Stony Brook University, located about 80 km east of New York City, seeking the chimps'release.

"They understand that they existed yesterday, that they're going to exist tomorrow." It was not the first time the group has argued for legal protection for chimpanzees before New York state courts.

Last year, a state appeals court rejected the group's bid to extend "legal personhood" to the apes, saying they are incapable of bearing the responsibilities that come with those rights.

Speaking in the university's defence, Assistant New York State Attorney General Christopher Coulston argued that granting legal protection to the chimpanzees could have unintended legal consequences.

"There is simply no precedent of (a) nonhuman animal receiving this kind of right," Coulston said. "The reality is these are fundamentally different species ... these rights have evolved related to human beings."

Acting Justice Barbara Jaffe did not immediately rule on the case but is expected to make a decision in the near future, according to her staff.