In 1386, a female pig was put on trial in France for causing the death of a child by tearing his face and arms. Trials such as this were not uncommon in medieval Europe. As E.P. Evans describes in The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, the same procedural rules applied to human and animal defendants, and the defense counsel for animals often raised complex legal arguments on their behalf. In this case, the sow was found guilty, and under the law of “eye-for-an-eye,” the tribunal ordered that she be maimed in the head and upper limbs and hanged in the public square.
Animals today hold a very different place in our law. As the subject of extensive legal protections and the beneficiaries of private trusts, they are no longer defendants in our courts, but rather aspiring plaintiffs.
Earlier this week, a series of habeas corpus petitions were filed on behalf of chimpanzees being held in confinement for various purposes in the state of New York. (Court documents available here). The petitions, filed on behalf of the chimpanzees by the Nonhuman Rights Project, ask the court to recognize that the chimpanzees are legal persons with a right to bodily liberty, and to order that they be moved into the care of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. This is the first time that a habeas petition has been filed on behalf of an animal in the United States.
Of the many important and interesting issues raised by these petitions, I will in this post focus the significance of granting legal personhood to animals.
While courts in the US have not previously been asked to recognize an animal as a person with a common law right of liberty, they have been confronted with a remarkable number of cases in which animal species are listed as lead plaintiffs—most often in suits brought to enforce provisions of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA). In one such case, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the endangered bird species at issue was a party with “legal status and wings its way into federal court as a plaintiff in its own right.”