Toward Hominid and Other Humanoid Rights: Are We Witnessing a Legal Revolution?

On 3 November 2016, an Argentinian judge granted habeas corpus relief to Cecilia, a person held captive in a small cage. Nothing out of the ordinary – except for the fact that Cecilia is not a battered woman or abused girl, but a chimpanzee kept at Mendoza zoo. This 1 % genetic difference turns this into a landmark judgment of potentially revolutionary proportions. For the first time in legal history, a court explicitly declared an animal other than human a legal person who possesses inherent fundamental rights. This judgment marks a radical breach with the deeply entrenched legal tradition of categorizing animals as rightless things (the person’s antithesis), and demonstrates that the previously impenetrable legal wall between humans and animals can be surmounted. The question seems no longer if, but when.

Background: Challenging the old paradigm

For centuries, law has been built on and perpetuated a strict dividing line between humans and all other animals. This is embodied in the traditional rule according to which only humans are legal persons (there tends to be a general amnesia about juristic persons), vested with fundamental rights, whereas animals are legal objects, to whom rights cannot accrue per definitionem. In an effort to dismantle the human/animal-divide in law, animal rights advocates have been working towards changing the legal status of (some) animals and attaining for them some of the same fundamental rights currently reserved for humans, such as the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Notably in the United States and Argentina, one strategy pursued for instigating such a legal paradigm change has been habeas corpus litigation on behalf of captive great apes (hominids). Habeas corpus, because only persons are entitled to this basic right safeguarding liberty – it thus forces courts to engage with the novel question of animals’ legal personhood ...

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