Yesterday, I attended the appellate hearing in the case of Nonhuman Rights Project v. Tommy, a suit filed by the NRP to free a chimp from captivity by means of a writ of habeus corpus. I filed an amicus brief opposing the writ on legal, practical and ethical grounds. Attended by the press and a few animal rights enthusiasts, the proceeding was best summarized in Wired, Salon, and the London Telegraph. (I have blogged on the implications of this lawsuit at Theoria.com).
My take is that the appellate court will issue an opinion that is highly sympathetic to the plight of mistreated animals, but will reject NRP's attempt to lift chimpanzees into the realm of personhood to achieve that end.
As mentioned in my amicus brief, there is no practical need to grant nonhuman animals the status of personhood in order to give them the protection they deserve. New York State law already allows police and qualified animal rights organizations to rescue animals who are being confined in a "crowded or unhealthful condition." See Sec. 373(2) of the Agriculture & Markets Law.
By the same token, granting personhood to nonhuman animals would raise serious practical problems (not to mention the ethical problems, which I also raise in my brief). How would the courts circumscribe the scope of such rights in each case? How would the courts determine whether the cage to which to animal is moved is adequate to protect its rights as a "person"? Would "bodily liberty," which is what the NRP is seeking for Tommy, protect animals against assault or abuse? Training? Sale? What other animals woiuld be granted these rights and why?
Steven Wise, attorney for NRP, argued that chimps deserved to be treated like persons, because the animals are "self-determined and autonomous." But, as I said to Wired, "If you’re going to give a nonhuman animal rights for being autonomous, then why don’t you give a robot rights for being autonomous as well?"
Mr. Wise, a well-intentioned animal rights advocate, made an admirable attempt to answer these questions, but I don't believe the court will provide any of them persuasive. For a more detailed analysis, please see my amicus brief or my summary of the issues on my Theoria blog.
The hearing was held in the appellate division of New York state court and a decision is expected in a few weeks. Should NRP's writ be rejected, the group is likely to appeal to New York State's highest court.