Nonhuman Rights in the News

Recently the Nonhuman Rights Project filed three suits in New York seeking to have chimpanzees recognized as legal persons, specifically for purposes of the writ of habeas corpus.  All three suits have been dismissed, which the NhRP expected and will appeal.

It’s interesting that the cases were filed in New York state court because the most recent major case in this area (Cetacean Community v. Bush) was filed in the Hawaiian federal court and appealed to the 9th Circuit.  The strategy here seems to be to focus on habeas corpus rights rather than rights under the Endangered Species Act and related laws.  New York seems to have been chosen because of its automatic right of appeal in habeas cases and because its Pet Trust Act allows animals to be the beneficiary of a trust, which the NhRP argues is evidence that the law already treats animals as legal persons in at least one way.

Now, we aren’t here to discuss the ethical, political, or scientific merits of these cases.  The real question is, “how does this affect Superman (and all the other intelligent non-humans in the comics)?”

As we discussed in our book, the law currently does not recognize any non-human animal as a legal person, and so far these cases affirm that.  The NhRP provided copies of the oral hearing transcript in one case and the judge’s decision in another.  From the latter we can see that the judge held (via handwritten note) that the habeas statute “applies to persons, therefore habeas corpus relief does not lie.”  Not a lot to work with there.

We get a much more detailed discussion of the arguments from the hearing transcript.  A major part of the NhRP’s argument focuses on chimpanzees’ cognitive sophistication and autonomy.  This is kind of a fraught argument because it relies on some difficult line-drawing.  Obviously not all chimpanzees are cognitively sophisticated: no doubt some have mental disabilities.  So then the argument must be made on the basis that chimpanzees “in general” or “on average” are sufficiently cognitively sophisticated or autonomous and then somehow as a result the rest of the chimpanzees should likewise be treated as legal persons.

This is much the same way as it is with human.  We (mostly) don’t deny human beings legal rights simply because of their lack of cognitive ability.  Membership in the class of human beings is sufficient.  History has demonstrated that whenever we try to draw lines things get really ugly, so we’ve mostly stopped doing so.

In this case the tricky bit is establishing that a) the chimpanzees involved in these lawsuits are cognitively sophisticated and autonomous enough and that b) all chimpanzees should be given the same legal status rather than creating some kind of cognitive test.

So what does this mean for Kryptonians, Skrulls, intelligent robots, and all the rest?  So far it means a continuation of the status quo.  Depending on how the cases turn out, it likely means that each species (and possibly even each individual) would have to have its legal personhood established on a case by case basis.  Just as the NhRP’s cases only focus on chimpanzees and explicitly do not seek personhood for bonobos, gorillas, and other apes (much less dolphins, African Grey parrots, or other notably intelligent animals), if the Vision sued to be recognized as a legal person that wouldn’t necessarily mean anything for the Skrulls or even, say, Ultron.

We look forward to seeing how these cases play out, although it will likely be at least several months before there are further developments.

12 responses to “Nonhuman Rights in the News

  1. Let’s say the court decides chimpanzees or at least specific chimps are legally persons. That might not lead to Superman being automatically declared a person but wouldn’t it simplify the processes?

    After all, if any non-human is declared a person, it will set a precedent. Superman or the Vision or whoever could then file a court case and basically argue they are smarter than a chimp.

  2. Terry Washington

    Never mind about aliens or artificial lifeforms such as Skrulls, Superman or The Vision- what about supernaturally based creatures(esp ones that are usually considered to be mythological) such as mermaids, unicorns, leprechauns or werewolves and vampires? I’d love to see Count Dracula or even Morbius( the so-called “Living Vampire”) assert that he was entitled to “personhood” under US law)!


    • Well, Morbius could probably just claim that he is ill. He was born human and is alive, so I don’t see a problem with him. That would probably apply to werewolves as well. Morbius was changed by science, but science or magic it shouldn’t make a difference.

      • Terry Washington

        True, Morbius could indeed claim that he is alive( as he never formally died and rose from the dead as did Dracula; his vampirism is sceintifically induced as opposed to supernaturally so) and is entitled to all the rights of formal “personhood”, but the question remains as to whether his more”traditional” brothers and sisters of the night could claim as much. Of course Dracula isn’t an American citizen or resident!

  3. Terry Washington

    It just occurred to me that based on your argument, Dracula could argue that his thirst for blood( as with Morbius) amounted to an illness or disease( see the 1936 vampire drama “Dracula’s Daughter” with the late Gloria Holden).


    • And he’d be right. Turning into a vampire makes you into an evil monster.

      It wouldn’t make much difference, though. He’d still have to be dealt with in one way or another. And you could always try trying Dracula the vamp as a separate entity from Dracula the man.

      • Terry Washington

        This whole thread reminds me of an old “Night Gallery” episode (I have all three seasons on DVD)- “You Can’t Get Help Like That Anymore” in which a race of robot servitors suddenly start asserting their rights as sentient lifeforms
        ( a cynic might have noted the allegory to enslaved African Americans in the US Deep South). Once alifeform( be it artificial, alien or supernaturally based) is agreed to be sentient, then it must be definition be presumed to possess certain inalienable rights( we can question whether werewolves are sentient but that’s another argument)- as they are manifestly smarter than chimps or gorillas!


  4. This story by Richard Lyon
    examines possible (?) implications of ape personhood, building on the Florida incident where a chimp was found driving.

    • Terry Washington

      Given that chimps and gorillas tend to share 80/95% of their DNA with humans, this incident does NOT surprise me in the slightest!


  5. My issue here is that I can’t see Chimps being prosecuted for crime. Would any Chimp be able to be ruled competent to stand trial, or avoid being judged legally insane? I don’t think they would face any legal responsibilities at all. I’m sure their are comic book examples of critters that are of similar intelligence.

    This is quite another problem from granting aliens who clearly possess the ability to be held responsible for a crime.

    Now, because they are arguing that the pet trust allows for legal personhood, I wonder if it will be found that an animal’s owner can grant legal personhood to their pet, but animals in general do not have legal personhood.

  6. Forget aliens, for the now; what of uplifted animals? Such as Gorilla Grodd and the inhabitants of Gorilla City, the ‘New Men’ of Wundagore, et cetera.

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