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Tuesday, 28 April 2015 17:28

Pushing the Legal Envelope for Animals

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Perhaps many of us have seen a version of this familiar story unfold on the set of a television drama. In a groundbreaking case, a chimpanzee takes the stand while his attorney uses sign language to defend his right to freedom from captivity. While the details won’t play out exactly like this in an upcoming hearing next month, something groundbreaking has happened in U.S. legal history for animals. Brought by attorneys from the Nonhuman Rights Project, a precedent-setting lawsuit seeks a “writ of habeas corpus” for Hercules and Leo, two chimpanzees currently held in a New York research institute. Advocates hope that this step will allow them to successfully challenge the chimps’ detainment while answering a fundamental question: whether nonhuman animals can be entitled to the right of bodily liberty. Last week, the nonprofit received a bit of potentially positive news after a New York judge issued an order to show cause, compelling the defendants to provide legal justification for their detainment. If the nonprofit prevails, the chimps could be moved to a sanctuary within the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.

gavelIn recent years, a number of advancements have been made for animals within courtrooms and legislatures in various parts of the world. Each year, new precedents are being made, reflective of an evolving public attitude toward how animals in society should be treated. Still, one of the largest remaining legal hurdles that often blocks the way of advocates helping animals in the U.S. is the doctrine of “standing.” According to this doctrine reserved for legal “persons,” a person must establish a protectable stake or interest that entitles him or her to bring the matter to court in the first place. Animals, who are property before the law in the U.S., are without the requisite legal standing to have their individual interests protected in court. In recent years, advocates have been able to overcome these hurdles through other limited means. With organizational standing, for example, nonprofit animal protection organizations may be able to file suit based upon the organization’s interest in protecting animals, where that interest is impacted. Yet standing often remains a major hurdle regardless of which legal route one opts to pursue.

Interestingly enough, however, “legal personhood” hasn’t entirely been restricted to human beings. Indeed, entities such corporations and ships have ironically gained the status of “legal personhood.” This fact begs the question of why sentient animals remain classified as “things” before the law. The Nonhuman Rights Project is hoping to change this reality with their lawsuit, as the writ of habeas corpus, which they are seeking for the chimps, can only be granted to “legal persons.” The nonprofit has also filed additional lawsuits on behalf of other chimps living in New York. While the outcome remains to be seen, one thing is certain—animals will now receive their day in court. The world will be watching to see what happens next.

Akisha Townsend Eaton

Akisha is World Animal Net’s senior policy and legal resource advisor. Prior to joining the organization, she served as assistant legislative counsel at the Humane Society of the United States. In addition to her role at World Animal Net, Akisha is a legislative consultant, Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, and a member of the American Bar Association’s Animal Law Committee. She received her B.A. from Stanford University, and her law degree from Georgetown University.


About the WAN Blog

The WAN blog allows us to share our expertise in the fields of policy, science, communications, management, and more in a manner that animal protection organizations can easily incorporate into their everyday work for animals. The blog also provides the opportunity to highlight important work of individual organizations and campaigns, and allows researchers, experts, and others outside of WAN to provide useful information to the animal protection community. 

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