By Genevieve Cottraux
On April 4, 2017, Judge Maria Alejandra Maurício of the Third Court of Guarantees of the Judiciary in the Argentinean State of Mendoza ruled that Cecília, a chimpanzee living alone in a concrete enclosure at the Mendocino Zoo in Argentina, had the right to health and happiness. In a statement released by the judge through the Great Apes Project (GAP), she said:
It is not a question here of granting them the rights that human beings possess, but of accepting and understanding, once and for all, that these beings are sentient beings, who are [the subjects of] rights and who, among other things, [have] the fundamental right to be born, live, grow, and die in the environment that is their own according to their species.
At 19 years old, Cecília is the only survivor of a group of 3 chimps. She reportedly became very dejected after the sudden deaths of her companions Charly and Xuxa. Her physical and mental condition were both deteriorating due to her abysmal living conditions in captivity. GAP and the Association of Officials and Lawyers for the Rights of Animals (AFADA), in collaboration with Great Simian Project of Spain and Brazil, filed the habeas corpus (unlawful detention) suit on Cecília’s behalf. The ruling paved the way for Cecília to be moved to the Sorocaba Natural Sanctuary in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She is in the company of 50 other chimps rescued from circuses or zoos.
On March 16, 2017, U.S, attorney Steven M. Wise argued in a New York state appeals court in Manhattan, that chimpanzees should be treated as persons with legal rights. Founder and President of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), Wise filed the habeas corpus suit for chimps Tommy and Kiko in hopes of moving them from captivity to the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Florida. Save the Chimps is the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary. Kiko lost his hearing through abuse by animal trainers. Both live in captivity in New York State.
Writs of habeas corpus were used extensively in the fight against human slavery in the United States in the 19th century, with abolitionists filing writs on behalf of enslaved individuals. The NhRP is currently considering potential clients to include not just the great apes, but elephants, dolphins, and whales—species for whom there is ample scientific evidence of self-awareness and autonomy.
Wise reportedly remains hopeful of a positive outcome; at the time of his court appearance, Cecília had been granted the legal right to apply for habeas corpus. Now that a judge has ruled in her favor, the precedent for Tommy and Kiko’s release is even stronger.
Earlier this year, a river in New Zealand, the Whanganui, was granted the full legal rights of a person by a vote in Parliament. The river now has legal guardians from the indigenous Maori community and was awarded $80 million in damages. Subsequently, the Indian state of Uttarakhand granted legal personhood to the Ganges and Yamunotri rivers and the glaciers that feed them. In light of the “rights of nature” rulings, it seems timely for Wise and other animal rights advocates to pursue personhood for nonhuman animals. The Humane Party is committed to rights for all animals and has proposed the Abolition Amendment, abolishing the property status of all animals under U.S. jurisdiction.