Habeas Corpus and Legal Rights for Chimpanzees

There’s been a huge story this week about the legal rights of nonhuman animals held in captivity. On Monday, a New York state court judge issued an order regarding Hercules and Leo, two chimpanzees held by Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York. The exact legal implications of the order were not entirely clear.

Picture from NYTimes (Leo and Hercules not featured) An organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Hercules and Leo. Habeas is a constitutionally guaranteed right, inherited from English common law allowing a detainee to challenge the cause of their detention or the conditions of their confinement.  (A notable example is that Earth Liberation Front political prisoner Eric McDavid was released earlier this year through a habeas petition).

On Monday, April 20, the judge in Hercules and Leo’s case granted a Writ of Habeas Corpus and Order to Show Cause. News stories declared it an “historic” move that “recognized chimpanzees as legal persons” and that “chimps were given human rights by U.S. court.”

There was some confusion about the actual legal impact of the order, partly because of the hyperbole and partly because the language around the procedure can be somewhat unclear. “Habeas corpus” literally translates to “you have the body” and is essentially a judge ordering captors to bring the detainee before the court to seek relief. A judge “granting habeas” means ordering that an individual be brought to court to be heard. But a judge “granting habeas” can also mean a judge granting the relief sought through the habeas petition (typically release from detention).

Things got more complicated on Tuesday, when the judge amended the order, striking the part about a habaeas writ and emphasizing that it was just a way for the case to be heard. So my understanding is that the judge granted a hearing on whether Hercules and Leo are being unlawfully detained and ordered the university to appear and to file a brief on the issue.

It is definitely significant that a judge agreed to a hearing. The judge could have simply denied the petition, as judges have previously done. The right of habeas has previously only been applied to humans, so it is noteworthy for a judge order a nonhuman’s claim to be heard. But it is far from what NHRP is seeking: a judicial order ruling that Hercules and Leo are “legal persons” and should be released because they are being unlawfully detained.

There is still the huge legal hurdle of the judge hearing (scheduled for May 27) the case and ruling in favor of Hercules and Leo. (It’s also possible that the judge can decline the hear the case based on the University’s brief).

My prediction is that following the hearing, the judge will rule that Hercules and Leo are not entitled to the relief sought because they are not “persons” under the law, citing a lack of legal precedent in applying “personhood” to nonhuman animals.

I’ll be following the case and making more posts addressing the legal arguments, and analysis on what impact it could have on both nonhuman and human animals. This will be an interesting case to explore issues around liberation, imprisonment and intersectionality.


Celebrating a racist, abusive Sheriff is not vegan

PETA and their celebrity spokesperson Pamela Anderson made headlines this week by traveling to Pheonix to promote Sheriff Joe Arpaio. For those that don’t know, “Sheriff Joe” has been widely criticized for racial profiling of Latinos, racist discrimination against inmates, abuse of power, illegal arrests and deplorable conditions in jail, including numerous wrongful deaths under his watch.  This criticism has come from traditional human rights organizations like Amnesty International and ACLU, along with the New York Times (who called him “America’s Worst Sheriff“) and the U.S. Department of Justice who sued him for “intentionally and systematically discriminating against Latinos.”

So why exactly did Pamela and PETA decide to showcase “Sheriff Joe?” Because he serves vegetarian food to the inmates at Maricopa County Jail.

Sheriff Joe and Pamela Anderson

PETA is trying to spin it as a way to protect animals and promote health, but it’s clear Arpaio’s decision to serve vegetarian food is because it’s cheaper. In attempt to save money, “Sheriff Joe” has moved toward only serving two meals a day, charging inmates for their own meals, serving green bologna and has cut out salt, sugar and condiments from meals.

Examples of Arpaio’s abusive treatment of inmates are too extensive to list here (including “Tent City” in 135 degree heat, use of chain-gangs, and many others). While Arpaio’s specific form of racist abuse makes PETA and Anderson’s gesture of support particularly egregious, support for any jail or prison is problematic for an organization promoting veganism from an animal rights perspective.

Veganism rooted in a desire to liberate all animals from captivity and exploitation is inconsistent with supporting prisons. Prisons encage and exploit human animals.

This is particularly true in the context of the prison-industrial complex. Inmates (human animals) are held in captivity and forced to work against their will, while others profit from this captivity and forced labor. Arpaio’s use of chain-gangs is an excellent example of this. Inmates are forced to work in order to get out of lockdown. They do not get paid, providing free labor to the County. If another species were exploited for the financial benefit of humans, animal rights organizations would actively oppose it (as they should). It would be easy to imagine PETA criticizing animal “chain-gangs” given their opposition to animal-based industries and their position on chaining dogs.

A likely response will be that the people in prisons did something to be there, unlike animals on farms or at zoos. As part of the press release, Pamela Anderson said “I believe people can be rehabilitated from the inside out. Jails are full of people wanting to change, to make amends, to learn healthier habits and understand compassion and empathy.”

But there are two things to consider about this:

First, PETA and Pamela went to a jail, not a prison. There’s a difference. The majority of people in jail are pre-trial, meaning they have not been convicted and are presumed innocent in our society. Those in jail are people awaiting trial who could not afford to post bail. So overwhelmingly, the people in Maricopa Jail and county jails like it are poor and working-class people who have not been convicted of any crime. The small percentage who are in jail after a conviction have been convicted of misdemeanors – lesser crimes including traffic violations, vandalism, minor drug possession, etc.

Second, incarceration doesn’t rehabilitate. The disconnect in the analysis of some animal rights activists is striking when comparing anti-social behavior among humans and non-human animals.  One example is Tilikum, the Orca held at SeaWorld who has killed three different trainers. The animal rights perspective has been to look at the trauma Tilikum suffered by being captured and held in captivity. No animal rights organization or activist would claim that the appropriate response is to continue to hold him in captivity in order to “rehabilitate” him.

Similarly, animal activists embrace a thoughtful, nuanced and empathetic approach toward problematic behavior in dogs. (Something I’m familiar with from fostering and adopting rescued dogs). In addressing dog behavior, animal advocates encourage looking to the socialization, history and experiences of each individual animal: What in their background causes them to behave (or misbehave) in a particular way and how can you deal with the underlying cause? No dog trainer would suggest that locking a dog in a cage for years would be an effective way to get a dog to end their bad behavior. (Note that PETA takes a strong position against using dog crates) Yet PETA and other animal welfare organizations perpetuate the myth that caging humans leads to “rehabilitation.”

Embracing a radical social analysis means challenging and critiquing all societal assumption. And supporting liberation of all living things means freeing all humans from the cages of prisons.

Prison Isn’t Vegan

Prison is a form of animal exploitation that is inconsistent with veganism.

Veganism particularly refers to the abstinence of consumption of animal products (i.e. meat, eggs, dairy), but the underlying philosophy is a belief in animal rights that opposes all forms of commodification of animals.  This position goes beyond diet to include any form of animal captivity that is used to benefit humans- such as zoos, rodeos, labs for animal experimentation, etc.

Prisons are institutions that hold humans in captivity. Those held in prisons have been arrested, charged and convicted of crimes. The forms of captivity vary significantly based on each specific institution and different categorization within the institution. Some are held in solitary confinement where they spend 23 or 24 hours a day in a cage, while some stay in general population where they engage with other inmates. However, in all situations, the prisoners are confined to the prison and their mobility and freedom is restricted by the prison and the guards that run it.

In the United states, an interconnected collection of political and economic forces are combined to establish what is referred to as the “Prison-Industrial Complex” or “PIC.” Critical Resistance describes the PIC this way:

Through its reach and impact, the PIC helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges. There are many ways this power is collected and maintained through the PIC, including creating mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, and other oppressed communities as criminal, delinquent, or deviant. This power is also maintained by earning huge profits for private companies that deal with prisons and police forces; helping earn political gains for “tough on crime” politicians; increasing the influence of prison guard and police unions; and eliminating social and political dissent by oppressed communities that make demands for self-determination and reorganization of power in the US.

One of the defining features of the PIC is the profit motive, as mentioned by Critical Resistance. There are corporations that rely on massive numbers being held in captivity in order to make money for their shareholders. Because of the financial interest in prisons, these businesses also actively lobby politicians for increased incarceration. There are a myriad of ways that these corporations profit from humans being incarcerated. I will elaborate in future posts, but briefly- businesses have contracts with the prison where they provide materials (clothes, food, beds, etc.) and importantly, many businesses rely on compulsory prison labor. These businesses rely on the exploitation of human labor, with inmates getting paid next to nothing (literally pennies an hour) and the companies sell the products at a huge mark-up, making massive profit.

Let me restate that because it is a crucial point: Humans are kept in captivity and forced to work for the financial benefit of other humans.

Another crucial point is the scientific fact that humans, a mammal species, are animals. After acknowledging that humans are animals and recognizing that prisons are institutions that keep human animals in captivity for the economic benefit of other animals, it becomes clear that the Prison-Industrial Complex is inconsistent with veganism.

Prison is animal suffering. Prison is animal exploitation. Prison is not vegan.

A Different Kind of Vegan Blog

What’s Wrong With Vegans?

There is a problematic trend among animal rights activists to ignore or disregard how their activism intersects with other social movements. For many, the development of an animal rights position is intertwined with a broader political analysis incorporating other global issues. So it is surprising and disappointing to continue to see this trend manifested in the mainstream animal rights movement.

A significant example of this trend is animal welfare advocates utilizing the criminal legal system in an attempt to end animal cruelty. Animal welfare organizations work with legislatures to enact or expand animal cruelty statutes and collaborate with police and prosecutors to arrest, charge and incarcerate people they believe injury animals.

I am a long-time vegan and have always viewed animal liberation through a radical political analysis that is opposed to the state, capitalism and all forms of oppression. I also work in the legal field, primarily in criminal defense and police brutality. My work experience has allowed me to see the inherent flaws in the criminal legal system and the dangers of placing faith in police and prosecutors as a solution to social problems. In future posts on this site, I will explore how policing and the criminal legal system maintains and reinforces oppression, relying heavily on the writings primarily by women of color, that have articulated critiques of the Prison-Industrial Complex and calls for prison abolition.

There is also a problematic trend in social justice movements where activists reject, dismiss and even disparage animal rights, often without legitimate critique. There are many activists with a radical intersectional analysis who don’t include non-human animals into that analysis. Brilliant, radical people with a strong, developed critique refuse to take their analysis to a logical conclusion that could include non-human animals.

What this site will be

  • A critique of the mainstream animal rights movement and its failure to incorporate a stronger analysis around race, gender, class, disability and other forms of oppression.
  • A critique of mainstream social justice movements that dismiss animal rights as a legitimate issue worthy of discussion and consideration.
  • A resource on animal rights and intersectionality. There are people articulating this analysis and I plan to compile and highlight their voices here.
  • A space for deeper analysis of prison abolition and its relationship to animal liberation.

What this site won’t be

  • A source for single-issue arguments for animal rights that ignore any relation to other social, human and global issues.
  • A compilation of shocking and gruesome photos and videos of dead animals. There are plenty of other sites showing graphic and heartbreaking imagery of violent conditions on factory farms, animal testing labs and examples of other animal cruelty.
  • A lifestyle blog. Again, there are lots of blogs out there about what it’s like to be a vegan parent, student, traveler, etc. Part of the goal is to place animal liberation squarely in a radical social framework and shift the discourse away from individual diets or habits.
  • A promotional site for vegan products. As part of an anti-capitalism analysis with a critique of consumerism, I’m not interested in focusing on what company just came out with a new vegan product that’s up for sale.
  • A vegan cooking blog. There are a ton of great blogs with vegan recipes featuring photos of enticing home-cooked, plant-based meals. This just isn’t going to be one of them.

I may post links to other sites that address animal rights and veganism from these perspectives, but these won’t be prominent aspects of No Cages.