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Court Rules Chimps Don't Have Same Rights As People

Chimps, they are kind of like us — but not quite, a court ruled.
Sonja Probst
Chimps, they are kind of like us — but not quite, a court ruled.

We told you last month about an appellate court taking up a case that explored whether chimps had the same rights as people. Today we have an answer: No.

As NPR's Eyder Peralta explained in December 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project asked a court to send Tommy, a chimpanzee living in a cage at a trailer dealer in Gloversville, N.Y., to a sanctuary. In October, Eyder wrote:

"The argument has been that scientists have found that a chimp is cognitively similar to humans, therefore deserves some of the same rights. In this case, the Nonhuman Rights Project is asking the court for a writ of habeas corpus, which compels a person's captor to explain why he has a right to hold a person captive."

But in a unanimous decision today, the New York Supreme Court's appellate division declined to extend habeas corpus to Tommy. Here's an excerpt from the decision:

"Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions. In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights — such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus — that have been afforded to human beings."

But the five judges in the court added that the decision does not leave chimps defenseless. The judges cited legal protections to animals, including the fact that New Yorkers may not possess primates as pets.

"Thus, while petitioner has failed to establish that common-law relief in the nature of habeas corpus is appropriate here, it is fully able to importune the Legislature to extend further legal protections to chimpanzees," the judges said.

In a statement, the Nonhuman Rights Project said the grounds on which the court had denied its case "are wrong." It said it would appeal to the Court of Appeals.

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Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.