During the first week of December, 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Group, an animal rights NGO, filed petitions for writs of habeas corpus in 3 superior courts in NY, to free 4 chimpanzees from what they identified as “illegal captivity,” and seeking a declaration that they are legal persons.  The group established an inter vivos trust, naming the chimpanzees – 2 owned by 2 different private individuals, and the other 2 housed at Stony Brook University but owned by another university – and, based on the fact that the chimps were beneficiaries of these trusts, they argued that New York State had already declared them to be legal persons.

If this argument failed, the group argued that the chimps were legal persons under the common law, and compared them to human slaves, corporations, and ships, all of which have been granted legal personhood status.

Copyright: mhgallery / 123RF Stock Photo

They cited In Re Fouts, 677 N.Y.S.2d 699, 699 (N.Y. Surr. 1998) to support the contention that the chimps were persons.  However, in that case the court stated “the court need not reach the issue of personhood for chimpanzees because the statute provides an adequate remedy that will satisfy the concerns of the petitioner.”

All three superior courts in NY denied the petitions for writs of habeas corpus, and at least one appellate court would not hear the appeal.

Copyright: spirer / 123RF Stock Photo

Interestingly, in the recently decided U.S. Supreme Court case, “Hobby Lobby” (notorious for other issues), the court discussed the legal fiction that corporations are legal persons.  They clarified that corporations are not in and of themselves considered “persons,” stating that while “[u]nder the Dictionary Act, ‘the wor[d] ‘person’ … include[s] corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals,’” the purpose of defining corporations as ‘persons’ is a legal fiction established to protect the rights of people.”  Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., — S.Ct. —-, 2014 WL 2921709, at *13-14 (U.S.) (emphasis added).

In an unrelated controversy about the copyrightability of a “selfie” taken by a monkey, the US Copyright Office clarified that only a human being could be considered an “author” of a copyrightable work.

“The U.S. Copyright Office will register an original work of authorship, provided that the work was created by a human being . . . The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants.”  Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices Third Edition Public Draft 08/19/2014306-The Human Authorship Requirement.

On the flip side, an Oregon State Supreme Court decision recently held that animals may be “victims” of animal cruelty, in a decision that some believe assigns human rights to animals.

It will be interesting to see where and how these decisions will be used in future cases involving the rights of animals and their owners.