Lawyers: We will appeal to seek chimps' freedom

A national animal advocacy group argues that two young male chimpanzees being used as research subjects at Stony Brook University should be set free. Videojournalist: James Carbone (Dec. 5, 2013)

Lawyers seeking to free two chimpanzees used in research at Stony Brook University said they will appeal to a higher court after a State Supreme Court justice in Suffolk County declined Thursday to hear their case.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, a Florida-based nonprofit, filed the lawsuit Thursday in Riverhead against the university and its president, Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr.

The animal advocacy group argues the two young male chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, are "autonomous beings" and ought to be living outdoors with others of their species instead of participating in locomotion research by Stony Brook's Anatomy Department.

Its lawsuit aims to establish "legal personhood" for the chimps -- an argument the advocates say is the first of its kind.

The chimps "deserve to live their lives the way other chimpanzees should," said Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project. "They are social beings and should be living outdoors with other chimpanzees."

As of Thursday evening, Stony Brook officials had not seen any legal papers on the matter, university spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow said, and could not comment on the lawsuit.

Wise, along with a lawyer and the nonprofit group's executive director, carried the 150-page suit into the Suffolk County clerk's office in Riverhead late Thursday morning.

State Supreme Court Justice W. Gerard Asher declined to sign the group's petition for a writ of habeas corpus for the chimpanzees, questioning the application of human rights to chimpanzees. The advocates will need to prove legal personhood before they can argue the chimpanzees are entitled to rights. The judge did not hear any oral arguments.

The lawsuit is similar to two others the Nonhuman Rights Project filed upstate earlier this week.

The first lawsuit was filed Monday on behalf of a chimp named Tommy, 26, who lives with his owner in Gloversville, about 35 miles northwest of Albany. The second was filed Tuesday on behalf of Kiko, also 26, who has appeared in movies and now lives on private property in Niagara Falls.

The lawsuits ask the court to grant the chimpanzees the right to "bodily liberty" and to order that they be moved to a sanctuary that is part of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.

Hercules and Leo are owned by the New Iberia Research Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and are housed within the Stony Brook Division of Laboratory Animal Research, which has been fully accredited for more than 30 years, Sheprow said.

All research protocols are reviewed by the Stony Brook Institutional Animal Use and Care committee, she said.

Charlie Bier, a spokesman for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the university does not comment on pending or active lawsuits.

Elizabeth Stein, a New Hyde Park animal welfare lawyer working pro bono for the Nonhuman Rights Project, said she was not surprised by the outcome Thursday.

"I commend any judge for taking the time to read our petition and give us a written response," Stein said.

She said they plan to take the case to the Appellate Division.

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