The decision, says Science magazine, effectively recognizes chimps as legal persons, marking the first time in U.S. history that an animal has been given that right.
The order, dated April 20, requires Stony Brook University to appear in court and provide a legally sufficient reason for keeping the two chimps, Hercules and Leo. A hearing is scheduled for May 6.
The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), the group that filed the case on behalf of the chimps, said in a statement it believed that Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe's order "implicitly determined that Hercules and Leo are 'persons.' "
But Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University who opposes personhood for animals, told Science, "It would be quite surprising if the judge intended to make a momentous substantive finding that chimpanzees are legal persons if the judge has not yet heard the other side's arguments."
The Nonhuman Rights Project filed a suit on behalf of the two chimps in the Supreme Court of Suffolk County in December 2013, but that court refused to issues a writ of habeas corpus, and its appellate division dismissed the suit. The group appealed to the New York County Supreme Court in Manhattan, which ruled Monday in the case.
As we have previously reported, New York courts declined to extend habeas corpus to two other chimps, Tommy and Kiko. The Nonhuman Rights Project has appealed those decisions. Here's more background from Science:
"The case began as a salvo of lawsuits filed by NhRP in December of 2013. The group claimed that four New York chimpanzees — Hercules and Leo at Stony Brook, and two others on private property — were too cognitively and emotionally complex to be held in captivity and should be relocated to an established chimpanzee sanctuary. NhRP petitioned three lower court judges with a writ of habeas corpus, which is traditionally used to prevent people from being unlawfully imprisoned. By granting the writ, the judges would have implicitly acknowledged that chimpanzees were legal people too — a first step in freeing them.
"The judges quickly struck down each case, however, and NhRP has been appealing ever since. Today's decision is the group's first major victory."
Member station WAMU's Diane Rehm Show devoted a show last year to legal rights for animals. You can listen to that show here.