Chimps are not people, cannot be freed from custody: New York court

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Chimpanzees do not deserve the same rights as people, a New York state appeals court unanimously concluded on Thursday, as it refused to order the release of two of the animals to a primate sanctuary.

A chimpanzee named Samantha waits for her daily feeding at the Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue Project headquarters in Charlesville, Liberia, November 19, 2015. REUTERS/Malin Palm

The 5-0 decision by the Appellate Division in Manhattan is the latest defeat for the Nonhuman Rights Project and its lawyer Steven Wise in a long debate over whether caged chimpanzees are actually legal “persons” entitled like humans to bodily liberty.

Citing experts like British primatologist Jane Goodall, the Nonhuman Rights Project said chimpanzees and humans share many behavioral, cognitive and social capabilities.

It said this entitled chimpanzees to many of the same rights, and sought “habeas corpus” relief to win freedom for Tommy and Kiko, each held by a private owner in upstate New York.

But the shared capabilities “do not translate to a chimpanzee’s capacity or ability, like humans, to bear legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions,” Justice Troy Webber wrote for the appeals court.

“While petitioner’s avowed mission is certainly laudable, the according of any fundamental legal rights to animals, including entitlement to habeas relief, is an issue better suited to the legislative process,” Webber wrote.

The Nonhuman Rights Project is reviewing the decision, which upheld rulings by state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe in Manhattan.

“This is not going to change without a struggle,” Wise said in a statement. “We remain confident that Tommy’s and Kiko’s fundamental right to bodily liberty will be recognized.”

Wise previously failed to win the release of the chimpanzees Hercules and Leo from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. They later moved to Louisiana after the school stopped using them for research.

Tommy’s and Kiko’s cause drew support from Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe in a friend-of-the-court brief.

Tribe suggested that nonhuman animals could face legal duties, citing a “long history, mainly from the medieval and early modern periods, of animals being tried for offenses such as attacking human beings and eating crops.”

Webber, however, said none of the cited cases were recent or from New York, and chimpanzees’ inability to defend themselves or take sufficient responsibility explains why those that kill or seriously injure humans are not prosecuted.

Tribe, in an email, said, “The court’s quotation from my amicus brief speaks for itself, as does the court’s decision to discount it on the somewhat curious ground that none of the cases I cited came from the modern New York scene.”

The cases are In re: Nonhuman Rights Project Inc on behalf of Tommy, and In re: Nonhuman Rights Project Inc on behalf of Kiko, New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, 1st Department, Nos. 3648, 3649.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Diane Craft