The quest by Nonhuman Rights Project to free the chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko from caged confinement has reached an end. The organization had hoped to secure the animals the same legal status as humans so that the chimps could be moved to an animal sanctuary. But the New York Court of Appeals voted to let stand a June 2017 ruling by a Manhattan intermediate state appeals court that chimpanzees are not legal persons and thus are not entitled to writs of habeas corpus to obtain freedom from detention.
“The issue is not Kiko’s welfare, any more than the issue is the welfare of a human detained against his will in a habeas corpus case,” stated the Nonhuman Rights Project appellate brief. “The issue is whether Kiko, an autonomous and self-determining being, may be detained at all.”
According to the Nonhuman Rights Project, Kiko is a male chimpanzee owned by Carmen and Christie Presti. The chimp lives in a cage within a cement storefront attached to their home in Niagara Falls, New York, as part of a non-profit corporation called The Primate Sanctuary. Kiko was actually an animal movie star for Tarzan In Manhattan, but Kiko suffered physical abuse while filming and became deaf.
“[Kiko] bit an actor and was punished by having two trainers hold him while a third struck him on the head with a blunt instrument, causing permanent damage to the stem of his brain that resulted in his deafness,” states a document from The Primate Sanctuary.
Back in December 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project petitioned for a common law writ of habeas corpus to “demand recognition of Kiko’s legal personhood and right to bodily liberty and his immediate transfer to an appropriate sanctuary.” The case wound its way through the courts until the Fourth Judicial Department ruled that “habeas corpus does not lie where a petitioner seeks only to change the conditions of confinement rather than the confinement itself.”
The Nonhuman Rights Project then filed a series of appeals until the case landed in Manhattan. At issue was whether a “person” must have the capacity to bear “rights and duties.” Nonhuman Rights Project President Steven M. Wise argued that was not a reasonable basis for denying legal personhood to the chimps since “capacity as a precondition for personhood ‘[would deprive] millions of humans in New York the ability to go into court’ under habeas corpus, a reference to infants, children, incapacitated and elderly people who cannot realistically fulfill this requirement.”
On the other hand, the Prestis argued that giving chimps the same legal rights as humans opens up a huge can of worms.
“The next thing you know, our farmers will be under attack, SPCAs and so on. The next thing you know, chickens are going to be having human rights,” Presti said.
The New York Court of Appeals may have voted down the attempt to free Kiko and Tommy from their cages, but at least one judge struggled with his decision and believes it won’t be the end of the debate over human rights versus animal rights.
“The question will have to be addressed eventually,” wrote Associate Judge Eugene M. Fahey, according to The Buffalo News. “Can a non-human animal be entitled to release from confinement through the writ of habeas corpus? Should such a being be treated as a person or as property, in essence, a thing?… The issue whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us. Ultimately, we will not be able to ignore it. While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person,’ there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”