Personhood Beyond the Human Gets a New Test

September 23, 2014

The debate over whether the term “person” can be applied beyond the human species reached a new level in 2013 with the first case of its kind, filed on behalf of a captive chimpanzee in a New York court.

A Montgomery County judge in December denied a writ of habeas corpus filed on behalf of Tommy, a chimpanzee estimated to be in his twenties, who was caged for years at a used trailer lot in the nearby town of Gloversville.

Judge Joseph Sise denied the application for Tommy’s release, made by Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), saying: “The Court will…not recognize a chimpanzee as a human or as a person who can seek a writ of habeas corpus.”

Lawsuits by NhRP on behalf of three additional chimpanzees, held captive in New York and Louisiana, were dismissed on the same grounds. “Any entity who is autonomous, self-aware, and self-determined…clearly has what it takes to be a legal person with a right to bodily liberty,” says Wise, pointing to legal precedents for personhood in the United States and other countries that include corporations, ships, and even a river.

NhRP has appealed the cases to the New York State Supreme Court.

The ethics of personhood and humans’ treatment of other apes was a focus of two 2013 events: a Great Apes Summit in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and a conference titled Personhood Beyond the Human, held in New Haven, Connecticut. In addition, the volume The Politics of Species (see, published in November, contained contributions from authors who noted that norms in many cultures, especially in the West, assume that the status of personhood applies only to humans.

“Human is an honorific title,” said David Livingstone Smith, a contributor to the volume and speaker at a September 30 Arcus Forum in New York City, arguing that humans create a psychological distance from their closest relatives by casting them as “other.”

This is the same device that for centuries enabled humans to degrade and demean others, whether through routine discrimination or “ethnic cleansing,” says Livingstone Smith, citing references to Jews as rats and to Rwandan Tutsis as cockroaches by the perpetrators of genocide against them.

Despite the similarity of apes to humans, according to Livingstone Smith, few animals have suffered as much at human hands. In all their range states great apes are endangered, hunted for their meat or body parts, and dependent on a habitat that has shrunk largely to meet human demands.

In biomedical research, apes have been infected with HIV, hepatitis C, and other viruses and subjected to torturous anti-gravity and aerospace experimentation intended to benefit human beings.

“Their likeness to humans has made them uniquely valuable for certain types of research, but also demands greater justification for their use,” said Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, announcing in June that the use of chimps in U.S. biomedical research would be phased out.

Ninety years after conducting its first medical research on chimpanzees—and having amassed the world’s largest chimpanzee research program—the United States in 2013 joined seven European countries, New Zealand, and Japan in halting or limiting invasive studies.

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