Chimpanzees: Animal Issues and Legal Cases

September 22, 2021Lu Shegay


The topic of legal personhood for animals has been the object of many debates for decades. Animal rights activists have been fighting for granting legal rights to animals due to several factors, the major ones are that they are all living beings and the vast majority of them are capable of experiencing basic emotions, such as fear, stress, suffering, and pain. It has been a question for a long period of time whether animals shall be granted legal rights, if yes, what rights, and whether all animals shall be granted legal personhood, if not all animals, what animals? There have been so many discussions and debates on these questions, and the single answer does not exist yet, however, some legal cases have already been initiated and even won.

"Young chimpanzee looking above" by Tambako the Jaguar is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Why do animals need rights?

When it concerns animals, it is challenging not to mention that a lot of animals are living and sentient beings that are entitled to basic rights, such as the right to life, the right to freedom of movement, the right to adequate care, sufficient food and water, shelter, etc. When I have to mention I am vegan, I am oftentimes asked whether I eat fish and crustaceans, which surprise me. Fish have been proven scientifically to be able to feel pain and fear, but that’s another story.

Chimpanzees, about whom this article will be about, are extremely intelligent creatures - they can recognize themselves in a mirror, communicate through sign language, pursue goals creatively, and form long-lasting friendships. These are the things, the list of which is not exhausted, the person can do. Almost all humans have rights, so why can chimpanzees not? Literally, in all jurisdictions around the world, the legal person is recognized as a person who has rights, which also means the person has a right to be protected from unlawful confinement. No one denies the fact that animals are living beings, sentient beings, but legally they are not protected in many countries across the globe. Since animals are treated as property/things, they cannot exercise any rights, thus, can easily be caught, confined, slaughtered, tortured.

Animals as property existed back in Ancient Rome, where domesticated animals and wildlife animals were distinguished. At the time, domesticated animals were considered subject to ownership, while wild animals were considered as res nullius, which means, they did not belong to anyone. John Locke discussed the difference between human beings and animals and stated that animals lacked language skills, they had no moral worth, and they should be excluded from the moral community.

In modern times, with the progressive world, developments, and changes in moral interests and understandings, the attitude towards the treatment of animals should have been changed too. Since ancient times, some countries have taken major steps to protect animals. For instance, Switzerland amended its constitution in 1992 and recognized animals as beings instead of things. In 1999, New Zealand granted strong protections to great apes. Later on, several European countries, such as Austria, the Netherlands, and Sweden, banned the use of great apes in animal testing. In 2007, the Balearic Islands, an autonomous region of Spain, passed the first legislation in the world that granted legal personhood rights to all great apes. Finally, in 2014, the Supreme Court of India held that all non-human animals should have both statutory and constitutional rights in India. That was followed by a 2015 decision from the Delhi High Court that birds have the fundamental legal right to fly, and a 2018 decision from the Uttarakhand High Court that identified members of the entire animal kingdom as persons.

Treating animals as property is ethically and morally wrong due to the fact that animals are not only living beings but also have an emotional state of mind, many of the animals have been proven to use tools, communicate, create bonds, build friendships. Moreover, it would be wrong not to mention how the entire ecosystem we live in changes with the disappearance of each animal. Thus, saving and protecting species of animals is important and is the human’s interest to continue living in a healthy environment and on a healthy planet.

"Lying chimpanzee" by Tambako the Jaguar is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Legal Cases

While a lot of chimpanzees are subjects of experiments and testing, the other side of involving these animals by humans is to bring the claim on behalf of them before the court. There have been a few cases initiated by animal protection organizations to grant legal rights to some chimpanzees.

For example, in 2016, the judge in Argentina granted habeas corpus relief to Cecilia, a chimpanzee that was kept at Mendoza zoo. For the first time in legal history, the court recognized the animal as a legal person who is entitled to have inherent fundamental rights. In this case, Judge María Alejandra Mauricio held that “the habeas corpus procedure is applicable for lack of any other appropriate remedy to challenge animal captivity and granted the petition after having determined that great apes are indeed legal persons possessing fundamental rights. Incidentally, the court further indicated that legislative and administrative steps should be taken to end animal captivity for exhibition and entertainment purposes because animals ‘are not objects to be exposed like a work of art created by humans,’ but rather ‘nonhuman legal persons and as such they have an inalienable right to live in their habitat, to be born free and preserve their freedom.’”

Another case led by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) was about Kiko, a male chimpanzee who was held in captivity in Niagara Falls, New York. Kiko was owned by Roger Figg, the exotic animal collector and trainer, with a steel chain and padlock around the chimpanzee’s neck. The NhRP filed a petition of habeas corpus on the matter of granting legal personhood to Kiko and his right to bodily liberty, as well as his transfer to the sanctuary. The NhRP has a long history with the court proceedings, its appeals with regard to this case. According to the last data, the New York Court of Appeals denied its motion for permission to appeal, and New York Court of Appeals Judge Eugene M. Fahey issued a concurring opinion in which he asserted that the failure of the Court to grapple with the issues the NhRP raised “amounts to a refusal to confront a manifest injustice … To treat a chimpanzee as if he or she had no right to liberty protected by habeas corpus is to regard the chimpanzee as entirely lacking independent worth, as a mere resource for human use, a thing the value of which consists exclusively in its usefulness to others. Instead, we should consider whether a chimpanzee is an individual with inherent value who has the right to be treated with respect.

Judge Fahey concludes his opinion with a striking personal reflection: “In the interval since we first denied leave to the Nonhuman Rights Project, I have struggled with whether this was the right decision. Although I concur with the Court’s decision to deny leave to appeal now, I continue to question whether the Court was right to deny leave in the first instance. The issue of whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us. Ultimately, we will not be able to ignore it. While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person,’ there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”

Read more about the Kiko case here.

Other cases regarding the chimpanzees’ legal rights have been initiated by the same organization, Tommy, the chimpanzee, and the first NhRP’s client, about whom the information can be found here.

"Juvenile Chimpanzee" by wwarby is licensed under CC BY 2.0


The article only covered a small scope of the concept of legal personhood for animals, granting basic legal rights to animals, or recognizing them as legal persons. The article also covered only a small percentage of jurisdiction. The entire world still treats animals as property, and this is a challenging issue since the article only covered chimpanzees. There were still cases about recognizing animals as victims of a criminal offense under certain circumstances and under a certain jurisdictional area - Justice the horse. Would recognizing animals as legal persons assist in conserving chimpanzees and other animals? Would this be beneficial? Certainly would for animals and for their well-being. Granting legal personhood to chimpanzees can save them from extinction, and humans shall start reconsidering their relationship with non-human animals and the treatment of the planet.

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