Attorneys representing two chimpanzees began their arguments on Wednesday in a New York court on whether the chimps deserve full “personhood” and the rights that accompany that distinction.
Hercules and Leo are at the centre of this landmark case and their attorneys from the Nonhuman Rights Project say they are unlawfully imprisoned and are asking the court to free the chimps, according to reports.
The defence is led by the New York attorney general’s office, since Hercules and Leo reside at Stony Brook University – a state college – where they are studied by researchers.
Steven Wise, head attorney for the chimps, says they are “autonomous and self-determined beings” who deserve freedom of their bodies. In court Wednesday Mr Wise cited studies on chimp intelligence and emotions, saying they share too many traits with humans to be considered less than a person.
The Nonhuman Rights Project is seeking to have Hercules and Leo removed from their university housing and moved to a chimp sanctuary in Florida, where more than 250 chimps live.
The defence has said that this case is a “radical attempt” to expand protections that could lead to people challenging zoos and even household pets, according to a court brief.
Precedent in this case appears to favour the defence, as last year a New York appeals court ruled that a chimp named Tommy is not a legal person. The judge in that case wrote that chimps deserve protection, but are not true members of society and cannot legally be punished for their actions.
Wednesday marked only the opening arguments in the case and it could be another two months before a decision in made. The chimps were not in court on Wednesday.
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