New York’s Top Court Declines Hearing Chimp Case, Traditional Legal Treatment of Animals Remains

On Tuesday, September 1, the New York state Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) declined to hear appeals in cases aimed to free two chimpanzees held privately in New York.  The cases were brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project, an animal rights group, which argued that the chimps displayed characteristics similar to humans and therefore should be granted basic human rights, including protections against unlawful imprisonment. 

The Appellate divisions of the state Supreme Court in Albany and Rochester had also previously ruled against the group.  In its unanimous decision last December, the five-member panel of the Albany court rested its opinion on a long line of cases that held that animals have never been explicitly considered as persons or entities capable of asserting rights for the purpose of federal or state law.  Further, it noted that both rights, and their correlating duties, are part of the common and consistent legal definition of personhood.  In analogizing that definition to the capability of animals, the court wrote,

“…unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to social responsibilities, or be held legally accountable for their action.  In our view, it is this incapacity 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.” 

The court also noted that its ruling does not mean that animals are legally defenseless since the state’s Legislature has extended significant protections for them, including severe criminal penalties for those found to have violated animal cruelty laws.

Applying to dogs as well as chimpanzees, the laws governing animal ownership and animal care throughout the United States have been remarkably consistent for over two hundred years. These traditions provide that pets are considered the legal property of their owners while also benefitting from laws governing their care and treatment. It does not mean that we, as owners, care for our pets any less.  It simply provides the legal framework by which we derive the right and responsibility to provide care in a manner that is best for our animals. When combined with criminal laws prohibiting animal cruelty and dog fighting, and civil laws addressing both intentional and negligent injury and killing of animals, the classification of pets as legal property has served as the foundation of a stable legal system that continues to encourage responsible animal ownership; deters animal abuse; and promotes innovative, affordable, and quality animal care.