Tom Purcell, 4/27/2015 [Archive]

Legal Monkey Business

By Tom Purcell

Legal rights for animals? Not so fast.

A few weeks ago, says the New York Post, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe "inadvertently bestowed human status on two chimpanzees being used for biomedical research at Stony Brook University on Long Island."

The chimps, Hercules and Leo, were granted habeas corpus — a legal action through which human detainees can seek relief from unlawful imprisonment — in response to a lawsuit filed on their behalf by the Nonhuman Rights Project. The lawsuit requested that Hercules and Leo be moved to a South Florida sanctuary. Justice Jaffe ruled that the university must establish cause for holding the two chimps (to be reviewed at a May 6 hearing).

Well, the Nonhuman Rights Project people quickly claimed that the initial ruling "implicitly determined that Hercules and Leo are 'persons,'" which could, potentially, open a big door to granting legal rights to animals.

An angry Justice Jaffe said she had no such intention and quickly amended her court order by crossing out the words "Writ of Habeas Corpus" — which means Hercules and Leo do not have any human rights at all.

The issue of legal rights for animals has been a source of debate for some time.

According to Science Magazine, some legal scholars take issue with the current legal system that treats animals as property and not independent beings. Cases like that of Hercules and Leo are intended to call attention to the matter and eventually grant some legal rights to animals.

Other legal scholars argue that apes and chimps and other creatures that are fairly well advanced should have rights similar to those of a human child.

According to The Washington Post, legal scholar Stephen Wise, a longtime advocate for legal rights for some animals, said that "Certain species are capable of complex emotions, can communicate using language, and have a sense of self. I don't see a difference between a chimpanzee and my 4 1/2-year-old son."

That may be so, but perhaps your son could use a shave?

Wise said that chimps, for instance, have complex social interactions. They use tools, count, do sign language (at a 4-year-old human's level) and demonstrate an idea of the future, while remembering the past.

Well, so do members of Congress, but we don't want to grant more special rights to them.

Wise said that when you give a mirror to an orangutan, he uses it to explore parts of his body he can't see otherwise. This indicates a sense of self, according to Wise.

It's also a sign that orangutans have a lot of free time on their hands.

In any event, advocates who want legal rights for animals want to give animals "basic rights of bodily integrity and bodily liberty," said Wise.

If animals have some legal rights, for instance, zoos and carnivals would not be able to detain and use them for entertainment and medical labs would not be allowed to use them for testing.

Maybe there is something to be said for that. Perhaps a majority of people will look back in the not-too-distant future and think it barbaric that animals were caged in zoos or paraded around carnival tents for so long. We should treat all of God's magnificent creatures with dignity and respect (though, admittedly, I intend to keep eating the tastier ones).

Still, it must remain clear that, though humans and some animals may have similarities, our differences are significant. Only humans have moral capacity, the free will to choose right or wrong.

We are, said Mark Twain, "the only animals who blush — or need to."

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© 2015 Tom Purcell. Tom Purcell, author of "Misadventures of a 1970's Childhood" and "Comical Sense: A Lone Humorist Takes on a World Gone Nutty!" is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. For info on using this column in your publication or website, contact Sales@cagle.com or call (805) 969-2829. Send comments to Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.



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