Debate Forum: 05/26

Forum Center: Oooh-oooh, I wanna be like you-ooh

Should chimps be granted legal rights?

By Sarah Sidlow

Could chimpanzees soon enjoy the same rights as human beings? Two New York chimps and the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), an organization seeking legal rights for nonhumans, seem to think so. The chimps, Leo and Hercules, currently live in a laboratory at Stony Brook University in New York. In 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a lawsuit to free them on the grounds that they were being held on the premises against their will.

Recently, New York Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe granted a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the chimps, a move that many following the case claim effectively recognized the chimpanzees as legal “persons” (under New York law, only legal persons may have a writ of habeas corpus issued on their behalf).

Justice Jaffe later clarified her position, stating the ruling did not say chimpanzees are legal persons, but that they (being represented by the NhRP) should have an opportunity to argue their cases in court. Justice Jaffe removed the words “writ of habeas corpus” from the original order, so it is now an order to show cause—which is essentially the same thing, except the chimpanzees will not need to physically appear in court. The hearing, which was originally scheduled for May 6, has been postponed to May 27. A representative from Stony Brook University will be required to appear in court and provide a legally sufficient reason for keeping Leo and Hercules.

For the NhRP and other proponents, this is only the beginning in the long struggle for animal welfare rights, but the fact that Justice Jaffe has issued an order to show cause is a sign the court is willing to hear the case.

Team Chimpanzee claims that since chimpanzees share 98.6 percent of our DNA, they have a close connection with humans. Chimps are complex, autonomous beings, they argue, with the ability to reason and communicate through symbols.

Moreover, they argue, legal rights of personhood have already been applied to other nonhumans. Think Hobby Lobby’s corporate personhood victory in 2014.

But this isn’t the first time chimpanzees have been used as a vehicle for a legal battle over nonhuman legal rights. Last year, an orangutan in Argentina named Sandra became the first non-human animal recognized as a person in a court of law. But apes in the states have been less successful. Tommy the chimp was turned away in an appellate branch of the New York State Supreme Court last year. The court argued Tommy was not a human being and, thus, was not entitled to the same rights and privileges. Opponents of chimpanzee legal rights are troubled by the doors the ruling may open. Human rights should apply to, well, humans, they say. Opponents in court have also argued that the word “rights” is often accompanied by the word “responsibilities.” While it is true chimps are remarkably intelligent and able to reason, display emotions and communicate, it would be difficult to argue they are so adapted to our society that they can be expected to follow a body of laws or bear the legal consequences of failing to do so. Moreover, they say, there are plenty of laws in place to prevent the sting of animal cruelty, without giving animals like chimpanzees full-bore legal rights.

As the case plays out, some are already looking farther down the rabbit hole. There is a strong movement looking at Artificial Intelligence, which has been argued to be both self-aware and autonomous, as the next beneficiary of legal rights of personhood.

Reach DCP Editor Sarah Sidlow at

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should chimpanzees be granted legal rights, like freedom?

Debate Left: The conscience of the mirror

Response By Ben Tomkins

The last common ancestor between the human species and the chimpanzee split off about 6-8 million years ago, never again to meet. During that time, hominids have developed from small communities of ape-like stone toolmakers to the modern Homo sapiens sapiens. 

Interestingly, although both chimps and hominids diverged so radically, they have both evolved to live in highly structured communal groups. Modern archeology has shown that Thomas Hobbes was wrong when he said that mankind’s natural state is one of “warre,” whereby any individual can do anything they like to any other unless they form a pact not to do so. On the contrary, science shows us that communal living is and has always been a fact of the human and proto-human condition, and the same can be said for chimps. As empathy is highly necessary for groups of intelligent individuals to form a society and chimpanzees very closely resemble us, we naturally empathize more with their condition as we can more easily sense what it might be like if it were us.

Because of our similarity, it is easy to feel that chimpanzees also share a greater portion of our morals and ethics. However, when we attempt to impose human moral ideals upon a chimpanzee as the Nonhuman Rights Project has, there are many slippery slopes and metaphysical musings that make it almost impossible to determine where an animal worthy of special rights ends and cattle begin. 

One of the great failings of the human animal is the belief that our moral impulses represent the highest good of all the species on Earth. On the contrary, our ethics apply only to us and our society because of our nature.

For instance, in chimpanzee society it is perfectly acceptable for the females to be subjugate to the males. However, it is important to realize that that this is not owed to a lack of moral and ethical development. It is in the very fabric of their nature, and if they had the intelligence to develop these natural conditions philosophically as we do, it may well be that they would determine that the greatest moral and social good comes from females being subjugate. 

Although this would be unacceptable to modern human society (at least in most of this country anyway), we must accept that even our closest relative in the animal kingdom will have a different definition of what is “right.”

That’s why the extension of human rights to animals becomes difficult. If we extend the human definition of solidarity to chimpanzees, what do we do when that chimpanzee’s nature doesn’t compel it to extend that right to another chimpanzee? 

Chimpanzees routinely bash each other over the head, and it’s perfectly acceptable behavior as far as they’re concerned. I suspect that if I were caught on tape doing the same thing to the same chimpanzee to express my dominance I’d be fired from every job I have for animal cruelty. 

So I suppose the question is really one of stewardship. Obviously we wouldn’t desire to police a chimpanzee society, but we can recognize that keeping one in a box makes it feel the same way a human would in similar circumstances. Science and observation tells us that a chimpanzee experiences depression, loneliness and sadness just the same as you or me if we were locked in a cage all day. 

Although its social norms are fundamentally different, our empathy informs us that it should have the right as a fellow creature to live in an environment that reflects its inborn nature. So it’s not so much a civil rights question as it is one of answering to our own conscience when we feel internally compelled to house an animal in a reasonable substitute for its natural condition.

For instance, my dog doesn’t run in a pack outside in the wilderness. However, she has her family, she gets walked twice a day, and has a lot of space to run around in the backyard. It’s a reasonable substitute, and she seems pretty happy. If I kept her in a box all day when I was at work I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Heck, we even feel obligated to give reptiles something resembling their habitat in which to live, and I’m not sure they can even experience boredom.

But when it’s a chimpanzee being kept in a cage, it’s even worse. A chimpanzee has a far greater need to exercise its brain because its intelligence makes it capable of so much more manipulation of its environment. The smarter an animal is, the more its mental state will deteriorate when it’s locked up, and so the pain of confinement exists on two fronts, not just one. 

Moreover, the more closely an animal’s social and intellectual predispositions match ours, the more deeply we are able to empathize with them. We feel bad for a dog in a cage, but when we look at a chimpanzee it’s a much deeper look into the mirror. 

I think the question as to whether or not a chimp should have certain rights should be based on an observation of chimpanzee society, not ours. However, as stewards, any institution that is keeping chimpanzees out of their normal habitat and social environment should be required to offer, at the very least, a modest alternative that reflects its natural condition. 

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

Debate Right: Enough with the monkey business

Response By Rob Scott

Let the jokes begin when it comes to this week’s debate. Is the legal world going bananas? The New York Supreme Court is allowing arguments whether chimpanzees should have the same legal rights as humans. No other case is receiving more legal scholar attention than this one. Read the sarcasm? The docket in New York must be slow and pressing legal issues placed on hold.

To get serious about the issue, advocates for the chimpanzee rights claim they serve as medical research subjects for many products, vaccines and medicines that humans do eventually use. More importantly, the chimpanzee genome was sequenced for the first time in 2005. Chimps share 98.6 percent of DNA in common with humans comparing, nucleotide-for-nucleotide, by about 1.23 percent. 

However, what the monkey advocates for rights left out is that in the genome world, this amounts to about 40 million differences in our DNA, half of which likely resulted from mutations in the human ancestral line and half in the chimp line since the two species diverged. This means though we are very similar to the chimpanzee as a species compared to others, we are still thousands of miles apart.

From those mutations come the dramatic differences in the species we see today—differences in intelligence, anatomy and lifestyle and, not least, success at colonizing Earth.

Before you throw your poo on the argument, lets begin to analyze the notion of chimps having legal rights granted to them by New York’s high court.

Chimpanzees are given a status as personal property under Ohio law, specifically decided in 2003 in the Ohio Second District Court of Appeals held in Oberschlake v. Veterinary Associates Animal Hospital deciding animals do not have legal standing to sue for pain and suffering.

Despite animals’ designation as personal property, there are three ways for chimps could obtain legal rights in Ohio, and other applicable states, joining their human brothers. First, any broad protections or rights, such as granting legal standing to chimpanzees, will probably have to come through legislation. Passing legislation is an arduous process and entails a fair amount of compromise and negotiation. Big businesses that depend on large-scale animal use—such as research industries—lobby to ensure as little regulation as possible. Since these industries are multimillion- or even billion-dollar industries with significant political leverage, legislation granting rights to chimpanzees requires a lot of public support. I highly doubt there is a large public outcry to give chimpanzees the same legal rights as humans in the United States.

Secondly, building precedent favorable to our fellow creatures can occur step-by-step through individual cases, the decisions of which create common law. Individual judges are unlikely to make any sweeping changes with a single case. However, once a few cases have given greater protection and rights to chimpanzees, it might be easier to bring legislation that codifies those decisions into statutory law. Possibly, the New York Supreme Court will be the trailblazing court to begin the process of granting chimpanzees similar or the same rights as humans.

A third way to create legal change is to introduce a ballot initiative or referendum. This method approaches the voting public directly and bypasses the Ohio legislature, which may be subject to pressures from various industries. Again, there would be a huge swell of public support in order to bring this initiative forward before the voters.

Ultimately, the real question: in our society, is this a true pressing issue? In the New York Supreme Court’s defense, you never know what kind of cases are going to be brought before the court. And quite possibly the high court in New York is going to underline the fact that chimpanzees do not have the same rights as a New Yorker.

Also, the Court only granted a motion to show cause in order for the case to be heard before the Court. This will allow both sides of the issue to be heard on its merits and debated by the Court.

Humans do have similarities to chimpanzees. However, the differences, though as a percentage is small, are truly great to science and society. Chimpanzees lack the mental capacity to obey laws or educate themselves to follow the law. Though chimpanzees do have more cognitive ability than most other animals, they do not meet the standard of the human ability.

It’s very doubtful a chimpanzee will drive a car, go to the grocery and pay for their food, or rent an apartment. A chimpanzee’s existence in a modern society would certainly need the constant assistance from humans.

For these reasons, a chimpanzee’s ability to be viewed legally in the same vein as a human is slim to none. Though I personally would enjoy walking into the court and seeing chimpanzees get divorced, filing lawsuits, getting speeding tickets or even voting.

If chimpanzees were to gain the same legal status as humans, I wonder whether they would be Democrats or Republicans? Would chimpanzees run for office? That is serious monkey business.

Rob Scott is a general practice attorney at Oldham & Deitering, LLC. Scott is a Kettering City Councilman, founder of the Dayton Tea Party, member of the Dayton Masonic Lodge and Kettering Rotary. He can be contacted at or

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at

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