By Daniel Wiessner
(Reuters) - Claims that intelligent animals should have limited legal rights may someday succeed, a Manhattan judge said on Thursday, but she denied an animal rights group's bid to get two chimpanzees used in research at a state university released to a sanctuary.
"The similarities between chimpanzees and humans inspire the empathy felt for a beloved pet," New York State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe wrote. "Courts, however, are slow to embrace change."
Jaffe threw out the Nonhuman Rights Project's attempt to have the chimps, Hercules and Leo, relocated to Florida, saying she was bound by a decision from a state appeals court that dismissed a similar case by the group.
It claimed that because chimpanzees are highly intelligent, autonomous animals, they have a right not to be imprisoned against their will.
Led by its founder, Boston attorney Steven Wise, the group is using a type of legal challenge known as a writ of habeas corpus typically brought by prison inmates or, less often, in child custody cases.
Jaffe said that because no court had ever extended the right against unlawful imprisonment to animals, she could not go against the courts that dismissed the Nonhuman Rights Project's other cases.
Wise, in an interview, said he would appeal the decision, and that he viewed the ruling as a partial victory.
“(Jaffe) agrees that the issue is not one of biology and you don’t have to be a human being to be a ‘person,’” he said.
Hercules and Leo are used in physiological research at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The university did not immediately have comment on the decision.
The group also brought court cases on behalf of chimpanzees named Tommy and Kiko, who live in upstate New York with private owners.
The Nonhuman Rights Project has asked the state's highest court to hear the two cases after they were dismissed by mid-level appeals courts over the last year.
The case is the Nonhuman Rights Project v. Stanley, New York State Supreme Court, New York County, No. 152736-2015.
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York)