Two Stony Brook University research chimpanzees are entitled to rights reserved for humans -- including a fair trial -- because they are "autonomous and self-determining beings," a lawyer for a Florida-based advocacy group argued Wednesday in a Manhattan courtroom.
"Both as a matter of liberty and equality, Hercules and Leo deserve personhood," said Steven M. Wise, president and chief litigator for the Nonhuman Rights Project, the nonprofit suing the state university for the release of the chimps.
But Assistant Attorney General Christopher V. Coulston, representing Stony Brook, said the claim potentially "opens the floodgates" to giving human rights to all kinds of other animals.
He said the chimps don't have the moral rights and responsibilities to be in society and should not have the same rights as humans. "The reality is that they [the chimps] are a fundamentally different species," Coulston said. "We are essentially creating these laws for them."
In a hearing that lasted more than an hour, both sides argued before state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe over whether the male chimps, Hercules and Leo, are being improperly held at the university and whether they could be granted a writ of habeas corpus, which allows human prisoners to challenge their detention.
Jaffe thanked both sides for "extremely interesting and well-argued" presentations, but made no determination. About 100 people, including animal rights activists and students, attended the hearing.
The chimps are owned by the New Iberia Research Center at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Spokesman Charles Bier said Wednesday that Hercules and Leo both are 8 years old and were transferred to Stony Brook in November 2010.
Stony Brook, in a 2013 statement, said the chimps were involved in non-medical, locomotion research.
Wise, a lawyer in Coral Springs, Florida, and the Nonhuman Rights Project have filed several lawsuits advocating for the "personhood" of chimpanzees both in New York and nationally.
The group's initial lawsuit against Stony Brook University and its president, Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., was filed in Suffolk County in 2013. Supreme Court Justice W. Gerard Asher in Riverhead declined to sign their petition for a writ of habeas corpus for the chimps.
Lawyers for the animal rights group, in their latest petition, have said the chimps should be sent to a Florida sanctuary because it's as close to living in nature as chimps can get in North America.
In his argument for the chimps' rights, Wise recounted several cases in history in which rights were eventually granted to humans after someone successfully argued on their behalf, including enslaved blacks, Native Americans, gays and the mentally ill.
Chimpanzees are sophisticated beings too, he said, with a sense of self, and the abilities to reason and to do mathematics. "They can remember the past and plan for the future," Wise said, and detaining them is "only something we would do to our worst criminals."
Coulston urged Jaffe to send the case back to Suffolk County's jurisdiction, because that's where the chimpanzees reside.
In addition, Coulston said, any decision regarding where the chimps should live must be decided by federal and state regulators.
Stony Brook University spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow said Wednesday the school would not comment while the case is in litigation.
CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly stated when the chimpanzees were transferrred to Stony Brook University.