When he first read about a petition demanding habeas corpus for a chimp named Tommy, Danny Cevallos thought what many people would: "Are. You. Kidding. Me?" Animals are, legally speaking, "chattel," meaning property, no different than a potted plant. But then the CNN legal analyst actually read the petition, "and I have to grudgingly admit: Their arguments are persuasive." They include:
- Habeas corpus petitions have been filed on behalf of chattel in the past—namely slaves, in the infamous Dred Scott case.
- The law kind of recognizes animals as people already: You can leave a trust to your pet, for example.
- Some things that aren't even alive are already recognized as people—namely corporations.
It all leaves us with the "deep philosophical question" of how to define personhood. The petition argues that it should be based on cognitive ability, including things like empathy, self-knowing, sequential learning, "and a host of other sophisticated attributes that I'm quite certain some members of my own family do not exhibit," and, on a serious note, that many people in comas do not exhibit. Are they people? How about goldfish? "Where do you draw the line for personhood?" (Click for his full column.)