The writ of habeas corpus lets prisoners appear in court to make their captors justify why they're being held. Until now in the US, those who've used this legal tactic have been human. But a New York judge yesterday ruled that the writ may be used by two lab chimpanzees at Stony Brook University, Science magazine reports. NY Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe ordered a university rep to address a suit filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project by appearing in court May 6 to argue why the college is holding Hercules and Leo. The group, which says the animals are being detained for biomedical experiments, says its ultimate goal is to have the animals released to the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Fla., per the NhRP's website.
"This is a big step forward to getting what we are ultimately seeking: the right to bodily liberty for chimpanzees and other cognitively complex animals," Natalie Prosin, the project's executive director, tells Science. The case kicked off in December 2013 with lawsuits that also included two chimps held on private property; each case was struck down, sending the NhRP down the appeals path. Not everyone's convinced the upcoming hearing will mean liberation for the chimps. A Pepperdine University law professor tells Science that the judge likely just wants to hear both sides of the story: "It would be quite surprising if the judge intended to make a momentous substantive finding that chimpanzees are legal persons" without doing so, he notes. Prosin, meanwhile, says her group isn't stopping with the chimps and will also target the release of other animals. (Click to read about what chimps talk to each other about.)