BRIDGET DOWNES / THE STATESMAN
The Nonhuman Rights Project filed a lawsuit against Stony Brook University, resulting in an order given by Justice Barbara Jaffe of the New York County Supreme Court for the university to justify its custody of two chimpanzees. BRIDGET DOWNES / THE STATESMAN

A New York County Supreme Court judge has ordered a hearing at which Stony Brook University must justify its custody of two chimpanzees, but the order has raised the question of whether the chimpanzees can be granted human rights.

Justice Barbara Jaffe gave the order on April 20 after the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a lawsuit against the university. Jaffe’s original order granted the two chimps a “writ of habeas corpus,” which gave the chimps the human right to challenge their allegedly illegal imprisonment, but Jaffe later amended the order by removing the phrase.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, a Florida-based organization, filed the lawsuit on behalf of Hercules and Leo, two male chimpanzees owned by New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana that are used for locomotion research in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University.

“The University does not comment on the specifics of litigation, and awaits the court’s full consideration on this matter,” Lauren Sheprow, the university’s media relations officer, said in an email.

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In the lawsuit petition, the Nonhuman Rights Project wrote that the chimps are “autonomous and self-determining beings who possess those complex cognitive abilities sufficient for common law personhood and the common law right to bodily liberty, as a matter of common law liberty, equality or both.”

Steven Wise, a lawyer who is the founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, said his organization petitioned for both a writ of habeas corpus and an order to show case, which requires Stony Brook to justify keeping the chimps, in order to “cover all the bases.” He said even though the writ of habeas corpus was struck out of Jaffe’s order, the Nonhuman Rights Project is still pleased with the results.

“In the end, it doesn’t matter what route you take to get Stony Brook to justify its detention of Hercules and Leo,” Wise said. “We’re just happy that the judge has given us a chance to argue this in court.”

The Nonhuman Rights Project first filed the lawsuit in December 2013 in Suffolk County Supreme Court. Judge W. Gerard Asher denied the group’s petition for habeas corpus on the ground that the chimps were not legally persons.

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The organization also filed lawsuits for the release of two other chimpanzees living in New York: Tommy, a male chimp living on a lot owned by Circle L Trailers in Gloversville, and Kiko, a male chimp living in The Primate Sanctuary in Niagara Falls. Both of these lawsuits were dismissed by their respective courts.

The lawsuit petitions asked the judges to grant the chimps writ of habeas corpus and to order for the chimps to be moved to a sanctuary within the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.

The Nonhuman Rights Project filed an appeal for Hercules and Leo’s lawsuit to the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department in Brooklyn, but the judges dismissed the appeal in April 2014.

The Nonhuman Rights Project then refiled its petition for Hercules and Leo in March 2015, this time in the New York County Supreme Court. If the court rules in favor of the Nonhuman Rights Project, the chimps will be released from the university and sent to Save the Chimps, a Florida sanctuary.

The hearing is scheduled for May 27 at 10:30 a.m. in the New York County Courthouse on Centre Street in Manhattan.

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