A New York judge has granted a pair of Stony Brook University laboratory chimpanzees the right to have their day in court -- and seek their freedom.
Justice Barbara Jaffe of State Supreme Court in Manhattan has ordered Stony Brook representatives to appear in court May 6 and show why the male apes, Hercules and Leo, should not be released immediately to a sanctuary in Florida.
The Nonhuman Rights Project, the Florida-based nonprofit that brought the lawsuit, said the order, in effect, recognizes chimpanzees as legal persons for the first time. The group originally filed its lawsuit in Suffolk County in December 2013.
"This is a big step forward to getting what we are ultimately seeking: the right to bodily liberty for chimpanzees and other cognitively complex animals," the group's executive director, Natalie Prosin, told Science magazine.
But a spokesman for the judge said Jaffe "absolutely" did not recognize the animals as legal persons and the advocates were overblowing the order's importance.
"The judge made no decision on that," spokesman David Bookstaver said Tuesday. "The judge merely signed an order to show cause, which gives them the opportunity to argue their case in the coming weeks."
Jaffe's order, issued Monday, directs Stony Brook and its president, Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., to show why Hercules and Leo are not "being unlawfully detained" and why they should not be released immediately to Save the Chimps, which runs the sanctuary in Florida.
Jaffe updated her order Tuesday afternoon, striking from its title "& Writ of Habeas Corpus," according to the Nonhuman Rights Project. The group said that did not change the significance of the order.
A writ of habeas corpus prevents someone from being unlawfully detained. It typically allows human prisoners to challenge their detention.
Stony Brook, in a statement, said, "The university does not comment on the specifics of litigation, and awaits the court's full consideration on this matter."
In the past, Stony Brook officials have said Hercules and Leo are owned by the New Iberia Research Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. They were housed within the Stony Brook Division of Laboratory Animal Research, which has been fully accredited for more than 30 years, university spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow has said.
All research protocols are reviewed by the Stony Brook Institutional Animal Use and Care committee, Sheprow has said.
The Nonhuman Rights Project says the two young male chimpanzees are "autonomous beings" and ought to be living outdoors with others of their species, instead of participating in research by Stony Brook's Anatomy Department. When it brought the suit in 2013, the group said the chimps were involved in locomotion research.
Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and a noted opponent of personhood for animals, cautioned against reading too much into the judge's ruling.
"This is not a huge breakthrough regarding animals' legal status," Cupp said. "These kinds of claims are new terrain for judges, and we should be cautious about drawing conclusions as to judicial intent based on the format used to schedule hearings."
Cupp said it would be "quite surprising if the judge intended to make a momentous substantive finding that chimpanzees are legal persons if the judge has not yet heard the other side's arguments."
In earlier action in the case, State Supreme Court Justice W. Gerard Asher in Riverhead declined to sign the Nonhuman Rights Project's petition for a writ of habeas corpus for the chimps. The group's appeal to the Appellate Division was unsuccessful.