Rachel Paige
Updated Apr 21, 2015 @ 9:54 am

For the first time in history, chimpanzees are going to have their day in court. A while back, we talked about how an orangutan named Sandra was going to have legal human rights. Now following in her footsteps, there are two chimps — Hercules and Leo — who have just been recognized as “legal persons” by the New York court system.

Hercules and Leo have been living at Stony Brook University on Long Island, where they’ve been studied by researchers looking to better understand certain human evolutionary principles. According to The Dodo, the two chimps have been at the lab for a while now, and it’s unclear if they’re even allowed to interact with other chimps.

But now they’ve been granted—for the first time in history—habeas corpus, which means that they have the right to challenge unlawful imprisonment.

“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,” Natalie Prosin, the executive director of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), which filed the case, told Science Magazine. “We got our foot in the door. And no matter what happens, that door can never be completely shut again.”

What this means is that Hercules and Leo, with the support of folks like Prosin, can battle against their detainment as lab animals, and fight for the right to be free.

“They have spent their lives in laboratory cages,” said NhRP president Steven M. Wise in a statement. “Now they deserve their day in court. Wise hopes this decision from the New York State court will allow the chimps to be relocated to a sanctuary in Ft. Pierce, Florida, “where they will spend the rest of their lives living with dozens of other chimpanzees in an environment as close to Africa as can be had in North America.”

That decision is still up in the air. On May 6, representatives from Stony Brook will appear in court to, presumably, challenge the claims that Hercules and Leo are being unlawfully detained. If the University makes a compelling enough case, the chimps may end up staying where they are.

But that doesn’t make this recent decision any less impactful. “It strengthens our argument that these nonhuman animals are not property,” Prosin told Science Magazine. She hopes to continue to fight for the rights, not only of chimps, but other captive animals as well. “We have the scientific evidence to prove in a court of law that elephants, great apes, and whales and dolphins are autonomous beings and deserve the right to bodily liberty,” she added.

Image via here.