Human Rights? No. Bodily Liberty? Yes.


The Manhattan Supreme Court recently heard the case of two chimpanzees named Hercules and Leo, which were apparently caged while undergoing research at Stony Brook University. Represented by the Nonhuman Rights Project, the suit contends that the pair should have a right to “bodily liberty” and that any caging of these primates violates their rights. Steven M. Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project asserts that the chimpanzees are enough like human beings that they are entitled to a writ of habeas corpus. The petition, being considered by Justice Barbara Jaffe, would have them transferred to a primate sanctuary in southern Florida.

What should we make of this? Do chimpanzees or other higher order animals such as dolphins and whales, qualify for human rights?

A secular society that has embraced a worldview based on the premises of naturalism would seem to think so. If human beings are simply the product of eons of evolutionary progress, then are not all species simply of a lower order and thus—in terms of rights—entitled to the same liberties as all animals, including humans?

According to its website, the Nonhuman Rights Project’s mission is “to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.” The case of Hercules and Leo is one of the first cases that has actually been granted a hearing in a municipal court in the United States.

Imagine the slippery slope upon which society may embark should the court grant “personhood” status to the chimps. Who will define “higher order?” Will animals be permitted to own property and get married? Might they be eligible for government sponsored health care from their veterinarian? Could a dog sue his owner because the owner failed to walk him properly? Sure, these scenarios seem absurd, but society has recently embraced a “new normal” where traditional values are now defined—by the loudest voices—as being “weird.” If the definition of personhood is deconstructed then the value attributed to the fact that humans bear the image of God is undermined.

As this suit progresses, no doubt to higher courts in New York, it will be interesting to see if any reference is made to the “Covenant of Creation” as recorded in the first chapter of the Bible. After the creation account, which includes references to the making of human beings in the image of God, a creation mandate is articulated in Genesis 1:28. God blessed them (the humans) and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Theologians over the centuries have pointed to this passage as clear indication that human beings are different than members of the animal world. In relating to the animal kingdom, humans are to exercise dominion thus serving as God’s agents in giving oversight to their well-being. Animals do not share the same category in creation as humans. In Genesis 2 all the animals were brought to Adam and the passage relates that “no suitable helper was found” (v. 20). There were none in the animal kingdom that shared Adam’s divinely created soul. The passage then goes on to describe the creation of a female, Eve, a human who did bear God’s image as well.

Exercising “rule” or “dominion” involves compassion and an appreciation for the higher orders of God’s creation. Though chimpanzees do not qualify for human rights within the Biblical economy, humans should exercise wisdom and be good stewards of the created order. In so doing, perhaps attention needs to be given to the fact that higher order species like chimps and dolphins and whales need to be cared for in ways that enhance their health and physical happiness. That may mean that they should not be caged but rather experience some degree of “bodily liberty” in an appropriate habitat.

The way that human beings best demonstrate the fact that they bear the image of God and are mandated to serve as his representatives within creation is to exercise wisdom, concern, and compassion in caring for all of God’s creatures, acknowledging that only men and women are persons created in God’s image entitled to the rights of personhood. That is one of the distinguishing characteristics that makes human beings the epitome of God’s creation.

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