Legally Weird - The FindLaw Legal Curiosities Blog

Is a Chimpanzee Entitled to Habeas Relief?

While the Framers of the Constitution probably didn't envision granting legal rights to non-human animals, they probably also didn't foresee canine birthday parties and pet resorts. And let's be honest, you probably feel there are some animals who are more deserving of certain rights than some of our human brethren. Nonetheless, animals do not have the same rights as humans, as a New York court recently explained in a case where lawyers argued that chimpanzees were entitled to habeas relief.

What is Habeas Corpus?

People who are imprisoned or confined and want to challenge the legal basis of their imprisonment, its duration, or certain conditions of confinement may file an application for a writ of habeas corpus. If the application is accepted, the entity confining the individual must show a valid reason for the person's detention. If habeas corpus is granted, the person may be released, see their sentence reduced, or have certain rights enforced.

What About the Chimp?

While it's more fun to imagine a chimpanzee writing up and filing his own application for habeas relief, it was, in fact, filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project of Coral Springs, Florida on behalf of two caged chimps, Tommy and Kiko. The state Supreme Court refused to hear the case after a lower court ruled that the chimpanzees were not entitled to habeas relief because they are not members of the human species. Courts have long held that only humans have legal rights because we are unique in our ability to understand these rights and our moral obligations.

Chimps May Have 'Right to Liberty'

While Judge Eugene Fahey agreed with the court's decision to dismiss the case for procedural reasons, he argued that even though a chimpanzee isn't a person, the animal may still be entitled to seek freedom from confinement through the habeas process. "While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a 'person,' there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing," Fahey wrote as he noted the cognitive similarities between chimps and humans.

So for now, chimpanzees are not entitled to habeas relief. However, that may change over time. After all, in our legal system, corporations are treated as persons with legal rights while the legal rights of a human fetus is an unsettled area of law. So, anything can happen.

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