By Lora Johns
Do chimpanzees have habeas corpus rights?
I admit I did not have a snappy response at the ready when I opened a patron’s email asking whether apes have “personhood rights,” accompanied by an NBC News article about an animal lawyer in New York. “I understand that two cases from Argentina — in 2014 and 2016 — have dealt with the rights of animals and whether habeas corpus can apply to them,” asked the patron. “Is there someone in the Library who can check Argentine legal materials to see if the decisions are available?”
The news article my patron had included with his request dealt with a chimpanzee named Tommy, a former animal actor. His lawyer Steven Wise has been fighting since 2013 to have courts in New York recognize Tommy’s habeas corpus rights as a way to protect his right to proper treatment (Tommy had been beaten by trainers and living in a cage without sufficient enrichment).
Buried deep in the article was a reference to Judge María Alejandra Mauricio of Argentina who, in November 2016, ruled that a chimpanzee named Cecilia was a “nonhuman legal person” with “inherent rights.” Two years earlier, the same judge deemed that an orangutan named Sandra also had “personhood” rights. Both animals were transferred to a sanctuary in Brazil to live out their lives as autonomously as possible.
Armed only with the judge’s name, the two years, and the fact that the case occurred in Argentina, I went digging. Happily, the NBC article linked to a BBC article about Sandra (the orangutan), mentioning that she lived in the Buenos Aires zoo. It also mentioned the name of the legal group representing her – AFADA.
I speak and read Spanish, meaning I had an easier time navigating the thicket of legal documents than if I were armed only with Google Translate and a prayer. I first searched Google to see if any Spanish news sources had reported on the cases (and whether they would point me to the correct court). A contemporaneous article about Cecilia announced that she had won her case and been transferred to a sanctuary in Brazil. Another article described Sandra’s successful habeas case as “unprecedented on a worldwide level” and – very helpfully – mentioned the court where the ruling was made – Sala II of the Cámara de Casación Penal, a federal court that deals with extraordinary remedies. Yet another article described the cause of action – amparo– another excellent breadcrumb.
Having thus greatly expanded my arsenal, I found not only the 2014 and 2016 rulings, but a related 2015 ruling as well. The hint about the court made it very easy to find documents using Argentina’s Judicial Information System. Sure enough, the rulings gave a detailed explanation, complete with expert testimony, of the hardships Sandra and Cecilia had suffered in captivity and why the judge thought they were entitled to rights as nonhuman beings. Cecilia and Sandra will get to live out the rest of their lives in wildlife sanctuaries, free of cages and cruelty. The Nonhuman Rights Project has provided a translation of Cecilia’s winning judgment if you, like me, are fascinated and want to read more.
All in all, it looks like our simian cousins are enjoying increasing legal rights from Buenos Aires to New York.
Here are some helpful resources if you, too, find yourself researching Argentine law:
- GlobaLex’s Argentina page provides a high-level overview of the Argentine court system. In essence, to research cases there, you should know at minimum where it originated geographically and the subject matter of the case.
- Even if you don’t have all the information, the Judicial Information Center allows searches using some other criteria.
- The website of Argentina’s court system, Poder Judicial de la Nacion, is a good source of legal documents if you already have some information to go on.
- For non-Spanish speakers who use Chrome, the Google Translate Chrome plug-in makes it very easy to translate words and sentences just by highlighting them.
- Learn about certain (fascinating!) legal mechanisms that exist in Argentina but not the U.S., including courts of cassation, which hear appeals but do not reexamine facts, only reviewing the law, and the action of amparo, an extraordinary remedy found in many Latin American jurisdictions that protects any basic individual right, implicit or explicit, that a person believes is being violated by another law.