Animal rights

Freedom for research chimps: Hercules and Leo set to go to a sanctuary

indexTwo chimpanzeesHercules and Leo who have been the focus of ground-breaking litigation in the United States are to be sent to a sanctuary along with 218 other chimps who are also in captivity at a medical research facility.

The University of Louisiana’s New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) has announced that it will not only send Hercules and Leo to the new Project Chimps sanctuary in Blue Ridge, Georgia, but all the other chimpanzees at the research facility will go there as well.

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has been fighting to secure freedom for Hercules and Leo for more than two years and there is an appeal pending in an ongoing court case in New York.

NhRP president Steven Wise says the project intends to do everything possible to ensure that humans and human institutions are never again able to imprison and exploit “self-aware and autonomous beings like Hercules and Leo”.

He added: “After allowing Hercules and Leo to be tortured for six years; after removing them from the State of New York in the middle of the night to try to destroy the jurisdiction the New York courts have over the NhRP’s pending appeal; and after negotiating in bad faith with the NhRP and Save the Chimps for more than six months over sending the pair to Save the Chimps, the New Iberia Research Center finally made a decision that is in the best interests of Hercules, Leo, and the numerous other self-aware and autonomous chimpanzees they have been exploiting for years.”

The first group of chimpanzees is due to move to Project Chimps this summer, but it could reportedly take as long as three and even five years to transfer all the other chimps to the sanctuary.

The NhRP says it will increase the pressure on the University of Louisiana to send Hercules and Leo to Project Chimps immediately.

Wise points to the fact that the United States Department of Agriculture has prosecuted and fined the NIRC for Animal Welfare Act violations on numerous occasions.

1430653245182Wise on a speaking tour in Australia.

The NhRP first filed a case on behalf of Hercules and Leo in December 2013. This was six years after the NIRC sent the two chimps to Stony Brook University in New York to be used in experiments that involved inserting fine-wire electrodes into their muscles and routinely subjecting them to general anaesthesia.

Wise said the long overdue move by the NIRC to send the chimps to a sanctuary was a significant milestone in the NhRP’s lengthy campaign to change the legal status of nonhuman animals.

“We’re thrilled that these chimpanzees will have their bodily liberty and integrity returned to them at Project Chimps.”

The NhRP is appealing against the decision of New York County Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe last July to reject its petition for a writ of habeas corpus for Hercules and Leo.


Lawyers for Hercules and Leo argued before Justice Jaffe that the chimps should be granted personhood.

In making her ruling, Justice Jaffe agreed that the NhRP had standing to bring the case on behalf of a chimpanzee and rejected all the procedural barriers that the attorney-general of New York attempted to place before the court.

She said: “Efforts to extend legal rights to chimpanzees are thus understandable; some day they may even succeed … For now, however, given the precedent to which I am bound it is hereby ordered that the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is denied …”.

Justice Jaffe issued a 33-page decision in the case. She said that, “for now”, she was bound to follow the previous determination of a state appellate court in the case of another chimpanzee, Tommy.

Citing the New York Court of Appeals, Justice Jaffe, said: “‘Legal personhood’ is not necessarily synonymous with being human … Rather, the parameters of legal personhood have been and will continue to be discussed and debated by legal theorists, commentators, and courts and will not be focused on semantics or biology, even philosophy, but on the proper allocation of rights under the law, asking, in effect, who counts under our law.”


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The NhRP is appealing Justice Jaffe’s ruling to the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Judicial Department, which, the projects states, is not bound by the decision of the Third Department in Tommy’s case.

Many voices have been raised in the call for the release of Hercules and Leo. They include the renowned environmental activist Jane Goodall (video below) and associate professor of law at Louisiana State University Ken Levy,

Levy submitted a comment to the board of the University of Louisiana System – of which the New Iberia Research Center is a part – urging the release of Hercules and Leo to a sanctuary.

Levy said that what Hercules and Leo endured while on lease to Stony Brook University constituted torture.

He also criticised the New Iberia Research Center for having “stealthily colluded with Stony Brook University to transport Hercules and Leo out of New York jurisdiction and back to Louisiana” while the NhRP’s appeal in their case was still pending and for having “stubbornly and callously” refused the Save the Chimps sanctuary’s offer to cover the costs of their care at the sanctuary for the rest of their lives (estimated at more than $2 million).


B6R5-gtCQAASW0C.jpg large“As members of a species that is exceptionally intelligent – cognitively, socially, and emotionally – and critically endangered, Hercules and Leo should not be treated like ‘things’ that are exploited for trivial research,” Levy wrote. “They deserve much better.”

Wise says that autonomous and self-determining beings have a right to habeas corpus to protect their fundamental right to bodily liberty.

He points out that he is seeking personhood for chimpanzees, not human rights. He’s not suggesting that chimps are people; the rights he is seeking for chimpanzees are chimpanzee rights, he says, and the same applies to elephants, dolphins, whales, orcas, and any other nonhuman animals whose cause he champions.

“The reason we chose chimpanzees is because we think they are our strongest plaintiffs,” he said during a lecture tour in Australia last year. “The scientific facts really help us; they clearly are autonomous and self-determining beings. If we can’t win with the chimpanzees, we can’t win with anybody.”

Wise said in court in May last year: “They are the kinds of beings who can remember the past and plan ahead for the future, which is one of the reasons why imprisoning a chimpanzee is at least as bad and may be even worse than imprisoning a human being.”

Chimpanzees in laboratories spend most of their time in solitary confinement, Wise told a packed courtroom.

“The way we treat Hercules and Leo is the way we treat our worst human criminals.”

The fact that Hercules and Leo had been granted a hearing was, Wise said, a partial victory in itself.

At Stony Brook University, researchers in the anatomy department used Hercules and Leo to study the evolution of locomotion: how beings went from bent-leg to straight-leg creatures.

“I’m not an anti-science person,” Wise said during his lecture tour in Australia. “I have a chemistry degree and am actually a very scientifically oriented person. But there is such a thing as right and wrong, and this in my mind is wrong.”