Hercules and Leo are two young male chimpanzees who have been held since 2010 at Stony Brook University, on Long Island. They are used in experiments on bipedalism. For a recent paper, researchers applied nontoxic paint to their skin and tracked them with cameras as they strode down a catwalk. “I respect them,” one of the scientists, Susan Larson, said in a 2015 interview. “I would never ask them to ride a bicycle or anything goofy like that.”
Now the studies have ended, following a legal bid to award Leo and Hercules a right normally only accorded to humans.
It’s not the first time animals have played a starring role in a court case. In Europe during the Middle Ages and early modern era, pigs, weevils and locusts were put on trial for such transgressions as injuring people and eating crops. Animals commonly figure in trials today as the victims of human mistreatment. But lawyers took a different approach with Hercules and Leo. They presented a judge with a writ of habeas corpus, by means of which a prisoner or their representative can challenge illegal confinement. In order for this to apply to the chimps, however, the judge would have to recognize them as persons—at least in the judicial sense.
Legal personhood has been a fluid concept through the centuries. Slaves were long considered things rather than people, and under the laws of coverture, a woman’s legal identity was subsumed into her husband’s. “I came up with this image of what I call this great legal wall—and on one side are legal things and on the other side are legal persons,” said Steven M. Wise, one of the chimps’ lawyers and the head of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP). “Much of the civil rights work over the last 200 years has been to punch a hole through that wall.”
As an authority in the field of animal rights, Wise has chosen to focus his efforts on animals with complex cognitive abilities elephants, whales, dolphins and the great apes. Studies of chimps, for instance, suggest they recognize themselves in mirrors, plan for the future, can imagine the world from the perspective of other chimps, and respond to the death of a close relative (e.g., by caring for the corpse).
Forty researchers working for Wise investigated which states would be most receptive to a chimpanzee personhood case. Habeas corpus suits had a good track record in New York, and animals there had already gone beyond the status of things in the sense that they can be the beneficiaries of trusts. The NhRP lawyers did not “seek improved welfare” for the chimps. Instead, they demanded “bodily liberty.”
Wise found a sympathetic ear in Judge Barbara Jaffe. In her decision, Jaffe cited a line from the majority ruling in the same-sex marriage case heard by the Supreme Court in 2015: “If rights were defined by who exercised them in the past, then received practices could serve as their own continued justification.”
Jaffe ultimately ruled against personhood for the primates, concluding that she was bound by precedent—though, in a tantalizing turn of phrase, she said it was “for now.”
Buoyed by Jaffe’s openness to his arguments, Wise is continuing to file chimp cases. And for Hercules and Leo, though they legally remain things rather than people, there has been a respectable outcome. Stony Brook has announced it will stop using them for experiments.