Should Chimps Have Rights?

Lawyer Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project thinks that chimpanzees should be "persons" under the law.
Marcia Wendorf

When he was eight-years-old, James Somerset was taken by slavers from his home in West Africa and brought to Virginia, where he was the legal property of one Charles Stewart for 20 years. In 1771, Stewart traveled with James to London, and there James got an idea: he was baptised in a church and thus acquired godparents.

Then, James fled from Stewart. Stewart hired slave catchers to canvas the city of London, and when they found James, they took him to a ship that would take him to Jamaica. There, he would work on a sugar cane plantation where the average life expectancy was three to five years.

James' godparents found a judge, Lord Mansfield, who was Chief Judge of the Court of King's Bench, and asked him to intervene. Deciding that James was a person and not property, Mansfield issued a writ of habeas corpus, Latin for "produce the body," and James was removed from the ship and detained.

After six months of trial, on June 22, 1772, Lord Mansfield declared James to be a "person" rather than property, and he walked free out of the courtroom.

Lord Mansfield
Lord Mansfield Source: National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons

"Person" or "Thing"

In the U.S. today, it is illegal to abandon or beat an animal, or to deprive it of food, shelter, or veterinary care. But, animals are still legally considered property. According to U.S. law, all non-human animals are legally "things", and all human beings are legally "persons".

In the past, slaves, women and children have also legally been "things". As a "thing", if your pet is killed through negligence, most states limit the liability to the pet's market value.

Under U.S. law, other entities besides human beings are "persons". Corporations are considered legal "persons", and they have the right to enter into contracts, to sue and be sued, and to exercise free speech. In U.S. maritime law, even ships are considered legal "persons".

Since 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project, founded by lawyer Steven Wise, has been attempting to make certain animals, such as chimpanzees, legal persons as well.

What is a "Person" and What is a "Thing"?

In U.S. law, a "person" has both autonomy and self determination. Wise sought out experts in chimpanzee behavior from Japan, Sweden, Germany, the U.S., Scotland and England. They wrote over 100 pages of affidavits describing the 40 different ways in which the complex cognitive behavior of chimpanzees demonstrates both autonomy and self determination.

Most Popular


Famed chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, who is a member of the Nonhuman Rights Project board, along with other researchers described the cognitive and emotional complexity that chimps and certain other animals have.

Chimps are aware of themselves and others as individuals, they have a sense of time, remembering yesterday and anticipating tomorrow, and when they play economic games with humans, they make fair offers. Chimps can do simple math, communicate with one another, and engage in language with humans through sign language.

In the wild, chimpanzees have a culture. In the Tai Forest in the Ivory Coast, scientists have found chimpanzees who use rocks to smash open nuts. Excavations have revealed over 4,000 years of smashed nuts, showing that the skill has been passed down over 225 generations of chimpanzees.

Four Plaintiffs

In 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project wanted to test U.S. law to see if it would grant chimpanzees personhood. They searched for the right jurisdiction in which to bring a cause of action, and they settled on the state of New York. They searched for the right plaintiffs, and found four.

Born sometime during the 1980s, Tommy had been a circus chimp in a small circus. When his owner died in 2008, Tommy went to the owners of a trailer business. It was there, along Route 30 in Gloversville, New York, that he was found living in a cage in a small room filled with other cages, within a warehouse on a used trailer lot.

Another chimp, Kiko, who is partially deaf, was confined in a cement cage in a storefront in western Massachusetts.

Hercules and Leo were being used for biomedical reserach at Stony Brook University.

The Nonhuman Rights Project filed three writs of habeas corpus, seeking that the chimps be declared persons, and that they be immediately released. The Nonhuman Rights Project wanted the four to be taken to a South Florida chimp rescue, Save the Chimps, where they could live among other chimps, and live like ... chimps.

Wise's position was controversial even aong other animal rights campaigners, but in 2013, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service also recommended that captive chimps be listed as "endangered," which would bar research on them that wasn't in the interest of the chimps themselves. 

Also in 2013, and following the lead of every other developed nation, the National Institutes of Health announced that it would retire most of the chimps at its research facilities and would no longer fund biomedical research on chimps. 

The Outcome

Unfortunately, Wise and company's attempt was not successful. The court's decision said, "[U]nlike 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."

In 2018, Jeff Sabo, director of the animal studies program at New York University, stated in an amicus curiae brief, Latin for "friend of the court", to the New York Court of Appeals that like us, Kiko and Tommy are conscious, emotional, intelligent, social beings and that "a more inclusive view of personhood" might take into account the following features: conscious experience, emotionality, a sense of self or bonds of care, or interdependence.

Of the court defeat, Steven Wise said, "We have not yet run into our Lord Mansfield, we shall, we shall."