Okay, so my new movie titles may not impress Hollywood, but what happened in a Manhattan courtroom yesterday is already a blockbuster. For the very first time, a state court judge has issued a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of two non-human apes -- chimpanzees Leo and Hercules, confined for medical experimentation at a university lab in Stony Brook.
Habeas corpus is a two-step process by which the legality of confinement is determined. Step-one issuance of yesterday's writ requires the University to appear and argue ('show cause') why such confinement is legal, in Step-two. Otherwise, these primates will follow the tradition of many fellow New Yorkers, and retire to a managed community in Florida.
In order to put the state to the burden of defending its actions vis-à-vis Leo and Herc, the court had to conclude that these sentient, social, but non-human primates are "persons," thus qualified to receive recognition of some rights under the law.
As I wrote earlier about this campaign of the Non-human Rights Project, His Day in Court?, "person" does not mean human being, and "rights" may not equate with our notions of full due process of law. Courts have previously expanded the reach of Personhood, to both animate (slaves, in another era) and inanimate objects (corporations, for one of many) ? but never to any member of another fellow traveling species in our midst. Conferral of Personhood allows at least some recognition of some rights, without necessarily endowing the holder with all rights (corporations can't vote, yet, for instance).
Now, it may be that the experimentation at Stony Brook is crucial to human welfare, and the isolated conditions of incarceration of these social beings may be adequately humane, on balance ? those kinds of questions will be at-issue in the Step-two hearing. But what this ruling may do, as a practical matter, is to force serious consideration of those issues Before various kinds of animals over which we homo saps exert dominion are subjected to various kinds of confinements. It takes a brick from the legal wall that labels other, non-human animals as 'mere property.'
In the wonderfully insightful best-seller Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari offers a clear-eyed view of our species' rapacious 'stewardship' of the planet, over our roughly 70,000-year reign. Humans ? first foragers and then farmers, have precipitated two mass extinctions of other species, so far; we are rushing headlong toward a third.
Regarding our treatment of domesticated animals, he writes (quote truncated for space):
"From the viewpoint of the herd, it's hard to avoid the impression that the Agricultural Revolution was a terrible catastrophe. Their evolutionary 'success' is meaningless. The rare wild rhinoceros on the brink of extinction is probably more satisfied than a calf who spends its short life inside a tiny box, fattened to produce juicy steaks."
"This discrepancy between evolutionary success and individual suffering is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from the Agricultural Revolution. In the case of animals such as cattle, sheep and Sapiens, each with a complex world of sensations and emotions, ? we will see time and again how a dramatic increase in the collective power and ostensible success of our species went hand-in-hand with individual suffering." (pgs 96-7)
Of course, such modern suffering is not at all confined to the factory farm. Yesterday's ruling represents a small, necessary step in our collective recognition of our species' impacts on individual other beasts with whom we share this space, and together with whom we will ultimately succeed, or fail.