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A writ of habeas corpus has been issued by a New York court in a case brought by animal rights activists on behalf of two chimpanzees.

The order means the university holding the chimpanzees will have to respond to the activists’ petition in court.

The activists said the court had “implicitly determined” that the two chimpanzees are legal “persons”.

Other experts say the writ may simply be a way for the court to gather more information at a further hearing.

The case concerns two chimpanzees – Hercules and Leo – being held at a research facility at Stony Brook University in New York State.

The Nonhuman Rights Project originally filed a lawsuit on behalf of the chimpanzees in 2013 with a view to having them transferred to a sanctuary in Florida, but in that instance the courts refused to issue a writ.Hercules and Leo become legal persons

On April 20, Judge Barbara Jaffe of New York’s state Supreme Court issued the writ, meaning a hearing will now be held on May 6 in which the university’s lawyers will have to explain the legal basis of the chimpanzees’ detention.

Habeas corpus – Latin for “you may have the body”- is a writ which traditionally requires a person detained by the authorities to be brought before a court of law so that the legality of the detention may be examined.

“The judge may merely want more information to make a decision on the legal personhood claim, and may have ordered a hearing simply as a vehicle for hearing out both parties in more depth,” law professor Richard Cupp told Science magazine.

“It would be quite surprising if the judge intended to make a momentous substantive finding that chimpanzees are legal persons if the judge has not yet heard the other side’s arguments,” he added.

David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the New York State Courts, also rejected the activists’ claim that the judge had conferred personhood on the chimps.

The judge had merely signed an order to show “cause”, he said, and the hearing in May would determine next steps.

The Nonhuman Rights Project says the ruling is the first of its kind and can be used as a precedent in future litigation.

The group argues that New York law does not limit legal personhood to human beings.

The state has previously conferred legal personhood status on domestic animals who are the beneficiaries of trusts, the campaign says, as well as extending rights to non-human entities such as corporations.


Animal rights group Nonhuman Rights Project is calling on a New York court to recognize a chimpanzee as a legal person, in what is believed to be a legal first.

The Nonhuman Rights Project wants chimp Tommy to be granted “legal personhood” and thus entitled to the “fundamental right of bodily liberty”.

The group is planning to file the same lawsuit on behalf of three other chimps across New York this week.

It wants the four to be released from their captivity.

They should be taken to a sanctuary that is a member of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, the group argues.

The group filed the lawsuit on behalf of Tommy on Monday.

“We are claiming that chimpanzees are autonomous – that is, being able to self-determine, be self-aware, and be able to choose how to live their own lives,” its founder Steven Wise told the Associated Press news agency.

The Nonhuman Rights Project wants chimp Tommy to be granted legal personhood and thus entitled to the fundamental right of bodily liberty

The Nonhuman Rights Project wants chimp Tommy to be granted legal personhood and thus entitled to the fundamental right of bodily liberty

Scientists’ evidence is included in the lawsuits.

“Once we prove that chimpanzees are autonomous, that should be sufficient for them to gain legal personhood and at least have their fundamental interests protected by human rights,” Steven Wise said.

Tommy, the group said, “is being held captive in a shed at a used-trailer lot” in Gloversville, New York.

Patrick Lavery, owner of the site where Tommy lives, said the chimp’s cage was spacious “with tons of toys”.

He said he rescued Tommy from his previous home, where he had been badly treated, but had been unsuccessful in placing him in a sanctuary because there was no room.

“If [the Nonhuman Rights Group] were to see where this chimp lived for the first 30 years of his life, they would jump up and down for joy about where he is now,” Patrick Lavery told the New York Times.

The lawsuit invokes the common law writ of habeas corpus, the right to challenge unlawful detention.

The Nonhuman Rights Group says it is dedicated to changing the common law status of species considered autonomous, and could eventually file lawsuits on behalf of gorillas, orangutans, whales, dolphins and elephants.

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