Big Apple chimp case highlights larger legal rights questions

A state appeals court in New York City must decide if a chimpanzee should be treated as a person with legal rights.

Cornell University law professor Sherry Colb is an expert on constitutional law and animal rights, and a former law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. Colb supports chimpanzees’ right to be free, but worries about the larger implications for animal and human rights.



Colb says:

“I believe that chimpanzees, like all other sentient beings, should have the right to be free from confinement. I hope that attorney Steven Wise’s efforts on behalf of the Nonhuman Rights Project are successful.  Every individual animal who benefits from a legal strategy such as his is cause for celebration.

“I worry, however, that part of Wise’s legal strategy has been to emphasize the particular traits that chimpanzees and some other of the ‘smartest’ animals – like elephants – share with humans, arguing almost for a kind of ‘honorary human status’ for exceptional animals.  My concern is that this approach further entrenches the notion that it is something specifically human – like the capacity to make autonomous choices or to think linguistically – that entitles a being to rights against being killed, confined, or otherwise exploited.

“Too much emphasis on human-like traits not only distracts people from the true meaning of animal rights. It also, by implication, excludes from the class of ‘true’ humans with rights those humans who lack the special cognitive capacities on which we focused to try to distinguish humans from most of our nonhuman kin.  Not all humans, in other words, would qualify as ‘human’ if we focus on traits like advanced cognition to define the category.”



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