Animal rights activists have filed a request for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of 26-year-old chimpanzee named Tommy, who is being housed in a shed in central New York. This is the first time a habeas petition — which is a legal challenge to unlawful detention — has been filed on behalf of an animal, according to England’s Telegraph.
The request seeks to have Tommy, and three other chimps, recognized as legal persons. This is because, without legal personhood, they are not eligible for a writ of habeas corpus– their enclosure (or “imprisonment,” as advocates refer to the confines) are not “unlawful” unless the chimps have equal status to humans.
Supporters believe that the chimps are eligible for this status because they have shown similar characteristics to humans. According to the Telegraph:
Chimpanzees “possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they’re found in human beings,” Steven Wise, the president of Nonhuman Rights Project, told Reuters. “There’s no reason why they should not be protected when they’re found in chimpanzees,” he added.
The lawsuits claim that chimpanzees are entitled to a “fundamental right to bodily liberty,” which would necessitate their release into a primate sanctuary. This is described as the basic right “to be left alone.”
If the petition for the writ of habeas corpus is granted, there will be a massive legal double-standard to address. Although the lawsuits are founded upon the belief that chimpanzees deserve rights that humans possess, only some humans possess the freedoms demanded by the petition. Before birth, no human in the United States is afforded personhood or a “fundamental right to bodily liberty.” These rights are reserved for select humans, who in turn have the power to determine the fate of pre-born humans.
Consequently, it is premature to seek rights for chimps that only some humans currently enjoy. Let’s put our priorities in logical order: If we want fair, or even extraordinary treatment for animals on the grounds that they deserve them “because humans have them,” let us first guarantee that all humans do, in fact, enjoy personhood and a fundamental right to bodily liberty.