Habeas Hairy Corpus

“You have the body.” That is the literal meaning of the Latin words habeas corpus. They refer to a law requiring authorities to bring a person who has been arrested before the court and to prove that the detention is legal. The writ of habeas corpus is a cornerstone of civil rights and the rule of law.

Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. A new legal challenge is the greatest test of the limits and meaning of what is also known as The Great Writ.

Two Long Island residents, named Hercules and Leo, are the subject of a New York Supreme Court ruling granting them rights under the writ of habeas corpus to challenge their imprisonment. Hercules and Leo will not be testifying in their own behalves. They don’t speak English. And there is no known interpreter who speaks their language. Not that it has any bearing on their right to due process, but they also don’t have last names.

Hercules and Leo are chimpanzees. They are being held without trial at Stony Brook University on Long Island. And they are the unwilling subjects of studies on the development of “human bipedalism” by scientists at the university.

New York Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe ordered Stony Brook University to have a representative appear in court in response to a petition from the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), claiming that Hercules and Leo “are being unlawfully detained” and should be immediately moved to a chimp sanctuary in Florida.

This would all sound like a satire except that it is really happening. The entire case stands everything we know about civil rights on its ear. If chimpanzees have a “right” to due process and freedom from involuntary servitude, do they also have the right to the pursuit of happiness? Can they be granted citizenship and be allowed to vote? (Without having to pass a literacy test?)

When Robert McCloskey wrote The American Supreme Court, he discussed the misplaced emphasis on economic freedom, rather than personal liberties: “The subject was ‘civil rights,’ that is, the liberties of man as man and not primarily as an economic animal.”

What would he have said about a primate animal’s rights?

The case goes deeper, calling into question the entire concept of personhood.

In an interview in Science magazine, Natalie Prosin, executive director of NhRP, said, “This is a big step forward to getting what we are ultimately seeking: the right to bodily liberty for chimpanzees and other cognitively complex animals.” While not commenting on the rights of non-complex animals, Prosin added, “We got our foot in the door. And no matter what happens, that door can never be completely shut again.”

Whether it’s a foot or a paw in the door remains to be seen. But, seemingly, she is right that nothing will be the same again.

In a blow for sanity, however, the court has amended the order. In an update, Science reported: “The court order referred to in this story has been amended. The words ‘writ of habeas corpus’ have been struck out, suggesting that the court has made no decision on whether Hercules and Leo — two research chimpanzees at Stony Brook University in New York — deserve to be treated as legal persons.”

We hope that Hercules and Leo don’t take it personally. Meanwhile, they — and Stony Brook — are not commenting.

While it’s irresistibly tempting to be facetious about this case, the issue is serious.

The noted historian Cecil Roth pointed out that, centuries ago, only Jews had laws against animal cruelty. We didn’t invent the concept. G-d commanded it — along with not murdering, stealing… and the rest. It’s ingrained in our minds and souls.

More than that, the very idea of “rights” is something you’d be hard-pressed to find in Torah. The Torah deals in responsibilities, not entitlement; obligations, not rights.

We are commanded to treat others as we want to be treated. We are also commanded to treat animals with kindness. Yes, they are property and they are owned. But they are not animated tools or toys. They are living things with feelings.

How important is compassion for animals? One might say the Jewish Nation is founded on it.

The Midrash says that when Moshe was tending Yisro’s sheep, one kid ran off. Moshe ran after it and saw that it stopped to drink. Seeing that it only ran away because it was thirsty, he figured it must also be tired by now. So he put it on his shoulder and walked back.

In response to Moshe’s being compassionate to the flock of Yisro, Hakadosh Baruch Hu swore, “You will lead my flock, Yisrael.”

To truly be kind to animals, you need to be a mentch. And neither NhRP nor the Supreme Court can order that definition on Hercules and Leo.