US Group Seeks to Free Chimpanzees With Habeas Corpus Application



The Nonhuman Rights Project (NRP), a US group “working toward actual LEGAL rights for members of species other than our own,” yesterday filed an application in Fulton County Court in New York state to free “Tommy, a chimpanzee, who is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used trailer lot in Gloversville.” The organization is seeking a writ of habeas corpus and asking that Tommy be moved to a sanctuary run by the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. In their explanatory blog post, the NRP draws parallels to the famous 1772 case of Somerset v. Stewart 12 Geo. 3, 1772, K. B. in which Lord Mansfield refused to apply American law to the person of a slave present in England, freeing him upon a habeas corpus application.

The NRP has said that it will launch another similar application today in Niagara Falls and a third on Thursday in Long Island.

Lord Mansfield says at one point in his decision “Compassion will not, on the one hand, nor inconvenience on the other, be to decide ; but the law . . . ” But, of course, compassion is the motivating force for the application and would, I should think, be the generator of any decision favourable to the NRP and the chimpanzees. And while inconvenience might be a stumbling block — think of the use of chimpanzees in research — I should have thought that “the law” would in fact be the major difficulty, given pretty much everything about it, from its origins in a democratic process (of sorts) to its ineluctably verbal nature at every turn, features that make it inapt to the participation of non-verbal creatures. This misalignment, if you will, means that either chimpanzees (and gorillas, dolphins, whales — other creatures the NRP has in its sights) will need human agents, with all the dangers of projection of human needs and desires on to their nonhuman “clients”, or that law itself would have to change into something . . . other, something capable of bridging species, a rather daunting proposition.


  1. If inanimate constructs (like corporations and churches) and human beings who cannot speak for themselves (like young children and persons with some disabilities) can advance their interests in court, no doubt we can summon sufficient legal creativity to realign our legal fictions to better reflect post-Darwinian facts.

  2. Hi Lesli. I agree that we can be much more legally creative than we have been. My big worry has to do with the fact that we’re not dealing with inanimate constructs here. With corporations and churches, our projections onto them are what create them in the first place, as it were. But when we project our human wishes, feelings, etc. onto other animate beings, we usually make mistakes and act in ways that turn out to be evidently harmful. It’s hard enough to for me to know what you want, even though we can exchange careful language on the matter. It’s simply not possible, in the same way, for me to “know” what an orca “wants,” and a dangerous hubris, I would suggest, to imagine otherwise. None of this, however, says we shouldn’t campaign for the release of captive animals; just that we shouldn’t do so on the basis of their having legal rights.