Amicus Curiae: On the possibility of legal personhood for animals and its place in New Zealand

EUGENIA WOO

In a recent landmark decision, a US Supreme Court judge granted a writ of habeas corpus to two laboratory chimpanzees at a research facility in the United States. This is the first time that a court has seen fit to grant the writ pertaining to unlawful detention to animals. Though the judge amended the habeas corpus order a few days later, the facility’s (part of Stony Brook University on Long Island) lawyers will still have to be present at a hearing on the 27th of May to argue for the detention of the chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo. This decision has come on the heels of a protracted effort by an animal rights group, The Nonhuman Rights Project, to relocate Hercules and Leo from Stony Brook to a sanctuary.

The decision has been a controversial one; activists have hailed it as an important step in the law acknowledging the rights of animals, while some have argued that it will have adverse effects. What exactly does legal personhood for animals entail?

The motivation for recognising animals as having legal personhood is to protect them from animal cruelty, and that would inevitably result in harsher punishments for those who violate animal abuse legislation. In the case of the chimpanzees, that means cruelty from certain kinds of laboratory research. Saskia Stucki of the University of Basel argues that the “case for nonhuman legal personhood has become increasingly pressing in light of the systematic failure of traditional animal welfare law to protect animals in any meaningful way”. The hope of the animal personhood movement is that it will grant animals bodily liberty and integrity. Legal personhood would not grant equal rights to animals, but it would demand that the interests of animals be taken under consideration by humans.

Personhood is a concept that law students and practitioners are well-acquainted with, but sometimes misunderstood by the general public. Corporate personhood is one such manifestation it – corporations are recognised nowadays as separate and distinct legal entities from their owners, and subject to unique rights and obligations under the law. The source of the controversy in the Stony Brook decision is arguably because of the difficulties that may arise in extending rights and obligations under the law to animals. Will a ruling in favour of Hercules and Leo open the door to all animals acquiring an enhanced legal status? Would granting personhood to all manner of animals be appropriate? According to Verlyn Klinkenborg, once a member of the editorial board of the New York Times, the animal personhood movement seeks to only ascribe rights to animals that demonstrate intelligence, have economic utility, or appear to be capable of suffering cruelty. He observes that animal personhood in its current form would affect primates, companion animals, dolphins, and elephants. Even if the chimpanzees win the case against Stony Brook, it is unlikely that ants (to use one example) will be granted legal personhood in the near future, despite some critics’ fears; the movement extends to cognitively complex animals. What does this mean for New Zealand?

While the judgement was not one undertaken by a New Zealand court, animal personhood has had its turn in the spotlight here, most recently during a Green Party co-leader candidates debate. When quizzed during the debate on his previous comments about “extending personhood to all inhabitants of the earth”, James Shaw elaborated that extending rights of personhood to animals would simply be an expansion of our current view of what rights extend to. Vernon Tava (fellow leadership candidate and a lawyer at the Auckland Community Law Centre) expressed a similar sentiment, though with the caveat that granting animals personhood would not mean treating them the same way that humans are treated under the law. It seems as if animal personhood is a more pragmatic concept than it first appears – it does not presume to prescribe to wildlife the same rights and freedoms enjoyed by humanity. The chicken, the snail, and the rimu would not have identical rights as humans, but perhaps the former might be granted relief from factory farming if one day granted the right to bodily liberty.

Ultimately, the Stony Brook decision, modified as it were, is not indicative of a concrete decision made by the US judicial system on whether animals should be treated as legal persons. The order delivered by the Manhattan Supreme Court requires Stony Brook’s lawyers to provide a “legally sufficient reason” for keeping the chimpanzees in the upcoming hearing, but this may be simply an opportunity for both parties to deliver more in-depth information. Though there appears to be quite a way to go before animals are afforded legal personhood, Natalie Prosin of the Nonhuman Rights Project asserts that they have their foot in the door, and “no matter what happens, that door can never be completely shut again”. There might even come a day in New Zealand when the matter ceases to become a matter of political debate, and instead becomes a certainty.

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