A person? A thing? No, it’s a chimpanzee!

A concurrent opinion by a New York Court of Appeals judge has raised hopes that chimpanzees will soon be given legal rights in the US.

On May 8, Judge Eugene M. Fahey handed down an opinion in which he agreed with the New York Court of Appeal’s majority ruling that chimpanzees Kiko and Tommy -- privately owned by resident New Yorkers -- should not be recognised as persons by the law; he stressed, however, that the ethical issues involved in the case were “profound and far reaching”, and that failure to grapple with these issues “amounts to a refusal to confront a manifest injustice”.

Fahey went as far as to say that “while it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a “person,” there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing”.

In a commentary on Fahey’s opinion, bioethicist Syd Johnson of Michigan Technological University said that the judge’s comments were unprecedented: “No high court in any US jurisdiction has ever recognized the non-thing-hood of nonhumans, nor the possibility that animals might be entitled to legal rights”. Johnson concurred with Fahey’s opinion, and while warning of the risks of introducing a concept of second-class legal status into law, said that chimpanzees deserve more legal recognition: “If there is no doubt that a chimpanzee is not merely a thing, as Judge Fahey himself stated, then there should be no doubt that justice requires more than to be treated like one”.

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