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Animal Rights Law: Topics--Legal Standing

This guide focuses on resources for research in animal rights law and includes links to primary and secondary sources.

Many of the books on animal rights discuss legal rights and standing.

On Dec. 2, 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of Tommy the chimpanzee, who is held captive in a cage in Gloversville, NY. Two more lawsuits were followed in the days after, one on behalf of Kiko, who lives in a private home in Niagra Falls, and another on behalf of Hercules and Leo, who are used for research at SUNY Stony Brook. The Nonhuman Rights Project sought relief for the chimpanzees via the writ of habeas corpus, which requires the captors of the chimpanzees to show cause as to why they have the right to hold the chimpanzees captive. The day after the petition in Tommy's case was filed, an hour-long hearing was held in Fulton County Supreme Court. At the end of the hearing, the habeas petition was denied. A year later, on appeal, the Third Department ruled that Tommy "is not a 'person' entitled to the rights and protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus . . . unlike human beings, chimpanzees can't bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities, or be held legally accountable for their actions." In September of 2015, the Court of Appeals denied a motion for leave to appeal in Tommy and Kiko's cases. December 4, 2016, a new petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed on behalf of Tommy in New York County Supreme Court, but the Judge dismissed the action claiming that the Third Department had already decided the legality of Tommy's detention. After filing an appeal with the First Judicial Department, the court ruled in June 2017 that the NhRP cannot file a second writ of habeas corpus for Tommy and Kiko. In May 2018, the Court of Appeals again denied leave to appeal in the case. The NhRP continues to try and work to free Tommy and Kiko.

In 2017, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a habeas petition on behalf of Beulah, Minnie, and Karen, all elephants born in the wild and imported into the U.S. for use in circuses, fairs, and zoos. The petition was filed in November in Litchfield County Connecticut Superior Court. The petition was dismissed in December. In January a motion was filed to reargue the case, but this was denied in February. The court also refused to allow amendment of the original petition. NhRP filed a notice of appeal for the denial of the original petition and the motion for reargument in March. In April, the NhRP filed a motion for articulation with the Connecticut Appellate Court seeking explanation for the legal and factual basis behind the February and December decisions. Only one of the 16 points asked for articulation is granted. Most recently, the NhRP filed a second petition in Tolland County claiming the experience of that court in habeas petitions.

In November 2018, New York Supreme Court Justice issued the world's first habeas corpus order on behalf of Happy the elephant. In February 2020, although the Habeas relief was denied in Happy's case, the decision noted that arguments from the NhRP to transfer Happy from her solitary area at the Bronx Zoo to an elephant sanctuary were persuasive and that Happy was an intelligent autonomous being who might be entitled to liberty. 

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Court documents in the case of Tilikum v. Sea World Parks & Entertainment, 3:11-cv-02476-JM-WMC, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California (San Diego) on Oct. 25, 2011. This case was filed by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) on behalf of five orcas forced to perform at Sea World. The complaint in this case of first impression seeks "a declaration that they [the orcas] are held by the Defendants in violation of Section One of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. Plaintiffs were forcibly taken from their families and natural habitats, are held captive at SeaWorld San Diego and SeaWorld Orlando, denied everything that is natural to them, subjected to artificial insemination or sperm  collection to breed performers for Defendants’ shows, and forced to perform, all for Defendants’ profit. As such,  plaintiffs are held in slavery and involuntary servitude. . . . Plaintiffs also seek an injunction freeing them from Defendants’ bondage and placing them in a habitat suited to their individual needs and best interests."