ALBANY (New York) • In a case watched by animal rights activists and courtroom curiosity seekers, a state Supreme Court judge in Manhattan on Thursday denied a request to free a pair of chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, being held at a state university on Long Island.
The unorthodox petition - which sought a writ of habeas corpus, an age-old method of challenging unlawful imprisonment - was the latest attempt by a non-profit group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project to establish that apes are "legal persons".
The group argues that chimps are self-aware and autonomous, a contention it has supported by submitting affidavits attesting to the animals' intelligence, language skills and personalities, among other traits, in several cases filed in New York on behalf of various captive primates.
In what the group hoped was a positive sign, Justice Barbara Jaffe of the New York Supreme Court in April ordered a hearing on whether Hercules and Leo, eight-year-old apes living as research subjects at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, could be released and transferred to an animal sanctuary in Florida.
Arguments were heard in late May. But while Justice Jaffe took the case seriously - her 33-page decision cited the long history of habeas corpus and included references to discrimination against women and African-American slaves - she could not quite see Hercules and Leo as people in the eyes of the law.
"For the purpose of establishing rights, the law presently categorises entities in a simple, binary, 'all or nothing', fashion," the judge wrote, noting: "Persons have rights, duties and obligations. Things do not...
"Animals, including chimpanzees and other highly intelligent mammals, are considered property under the law. They are accorded no legal rights (beyond being free from mistreatment or abuse)."
And while she said such definitions could evolve, she also said her decision was bound by a 2014 state appellate court decision finding that chimps were not legal people because of "a chimpanzee's inability to take on duties or responsibilities" of adult humans (such as voting, jury duty or paying rent).
The case for the Stony Brook university had been argued by the office of the state attorney general, Mr Eric Schneiderman, which filed briefs that characterised the suit as "a radical attempt to blur the legal boundaries that exist between humans and animals", and suggested that giving chimps habeas corpus rights could lead to legal chaos and animals on the loose.
Mr Schneiderman's office had no comment on the decision on Thursday, but the university seemed pleased with it. "We acknowledge, and are in the process of reviewing, Judge Jaffe's thoughtful decision," a university spokesman said.
Nonhuman Rights Project president Steven Wise also called the decision "thoughtful and comprehensive", but noted that the organisation would appeal.
NEW YORK TIMES