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Susan Larson with Hercules at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Susan Larson with Hercules at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Courtesy Susan Larson

‘Personhood’ chimpanzees returned to owners, ending animal rights litigation

Two New York research chimpanzees have been returned to the organization that owns them, effectively ending a 2-year legal battle to have the animals declared legal persons. The State University of New York at Stony Brook (SUNY Stony Brook) transferred the animals—Hercules and Leo—back to the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana (NIRC) in early December, but the animal rights group behind the legal effort has vowed to keep fighting to release them from captivity.

“We’re shifting from a legal to a political campaign,” says Steven Wise, the president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) in Coral Springs, Florida. “We’re going to ramp up pressure on the governor of Louisiana and the University of Louisiana system to free these chimpanzees.”

NhRP first sued on behalf of Hercules and Leo in late 2013, arguing that the chimpanzees were too cognitively advanced to be confined in a lab. The group contended that the chimps should be covered by a writ of habeas corpus, which typically allows human prisoners to challenge their detention. But it lost this case, and several appeals, scoring only a minor victory last April when a New York supreme court justice ruled that SUNY Stony Brook had to appear in court to defend its possession of the animals. That judge too, though seemingly sympathetic to NhRP’s arguments, ultimately ruled in July that—as nonpersons—Hercules and Leo could not legally challenge their detention.

NhRP appealed, hoping to move the animals to Save the Chimps, a Fort Pierce, Florida–based nonprofit that bills itself as the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary. But on 10 December 2015, SUNY Stony Brook transferred the 9-year-old chimps back to NIRC, which had loaned the animals to the university in 2011. The move complicates any further legal action, as the animals are no longer in New York’s jurisdiction.

“We will continue to monitor them closely to ensure they remain healthy,” Ramesh Kolluru, the vice president for research at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, told ScienceInsider through a university spokesperson. “At NIRC they will receive veterinary care, enrichment, exercise, and gradually be introduced to social housing with other chimpanzees … [They] will not be used for any research.” Indeed, according to new federal rules, neither NIRC nor any other facility can use chimpanzees in research without justifying that the work enhances the survival of the species.

Susan Larson, an anatomist who used Hercules and Leo in studies of locomotion at SUNY Stony Brook, says that her research with the animals concluded in mid-2015. She tells ScienceInsider that she believes NIRC originally intended to retire the chimps directly to a sanctuary. “But when Steven Wise and the NhRP inserted themselves into the situation, everything became complicated … Stony Brook and NIRC both agreed that continuing to house them here while the legal wrangling was going on was not good for them, so they were returned to NIRC.”

Wise says his group plans to petition Louisiana’s governor and the president of the University of Louisiana system to move Hercules and Leo to Save the Chimps. “They clearly don’t care about these animals,” Wise claims.

Wise’s efforts aside, Save the Chimps is still in active discussions with NIRC to take the animals, says the sanctuary’s executive director, Molly Polidoroff. “We have yet to reach an agreement with them regarding the terms of the transfer of ownership, but they’ve told us we would be their first choice,” she says. “I’m convinced they really do care about the welfare of those chimps.” Save the Chimps, Polidoroff says, currently has 254 chimpanzees that live on 12 islands, each up to 2 hectares in size, on Florida’s east coast. “It’s just a wide open space,” she says. “It’s about as close as you can get to a natural habitat.”