In late May, lawyers in a Manhattan courtroom argued that their clients must be released from what they consider to be unlawful detention and a violation of their rights. Their clients, whose names are Hercules and Leo, had nothing to say on their own behalves, even by way of affidavit.
That’s because Hercules and Leo are chimpanzees.
In December, 2013, the Non-human Rights Project filed what Science magazine called a “salvo of lawsuits” on behalf of four chimpanzees in New York: Hercules and Leo, who are used for research purposes at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, along with two chimps held by private owners.
The lawsuits ultimately sought the four chimps’ relocation to a sanctuary in Florida.
Now what made the lawsuits worthy of notice was the theory under which the Project proceeded. They were not claiming violations of animal welfare laws—they were asking for a writ of habeas corpus, the ancient legal proceeding by which a person challenges their unlawful detention before a court.
The key word here is “person.” The Project was arguing that Hercules and Leo should be treated as legal persons. In their petition, the Project’s lawyers argued that Hercules and Leo “were too cognitively and emotionally complex to be held in captivity.”
In April, Judge Barbara Jaffe became the first judge to not summarily dismiss a lawsuit alleging that animals can be regarded as legal persons. Then in late May, the lawyers on both sides made their case.
The Project told judge Jaffe that the chimps were “autonomous and self-governing beings.” The lawyer representing the State of New York responded that “the reality is these are fundamentally different species," and that “There's simply no precedent anywhere of an animal getting the same rights as a human."
He told judge Jaffe that granting the petition would create “a slippery slope regarding the rights of other animals." For her part, judge Jaffe called the arguments “extremely interesting.”
Well, the words that come to my mind are “troubling,” “surreal,” and “foolish.”
I’m troubled by the Project’s criteria for personhood: cognitive and emotional complexity. In essence they’re arguing that what separates personhood, and the legal protections that accompany personhood, from non-personhood is intelligence and the ability to feel emotions.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same criteria applied by ethicist Peter Singer who, not coincidentally, is a prominent animal rights supporter. Under this criterion, many humans—the cognitively impaired, those in a coma, and of course, the unborn—would be considered nonpersons while chimps and dolphins would be regarded as persons.
This would make some animals the legal equivalent of people and some people the legal equivalent of animals. Surreal.
And the foolish part is the insistence on denying the obvious difference between people and animals. Someone who sees the absurdity of this kind of litigation is Tony Kornheiser of ESPN, who, on his radio show, called the lawsuit “stupid.”
He then proceeded to suggest that those who think that chimps are persons should spend the night with them, and then “see if you have a face in the morning,” a reference to the woman whose hands and face were ripped off by a friend’s pet chimp in 2009.
Kornheiser continued, “You don’t want them to have medical experiments performed on them, okay” but that doesn’t change the fact that “they are wild animals” who may show up in court but cannot testify.
Sometimes, ideas can be so absurd that mockery might be the only fitting response. Fighting the mistreatment of animals is one thing, and as Christians we should do that. But this lawsuit brings to mind what Paul wrote in Romans 1 about those who denied what creation has to teach us about God: “while claiming to be wise, they became fools.”
The kind of fool who mistakes a monkey for a man.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
Publication date: June 4, 2015