An activist group is claiming that a lawsuit filed to force a New York state university to ‘free’ a pair of chimps represents a precedent that establishes animals with legal rights.

A New York judge, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe (in New York the Supreme Court is actually the lower level court), has issued a show cause order to Stony Brook University regarding animals used in medical research.

Why is this newsworthy? Because the lawsuit that triggered the order, trumped up by the activist group The Nonhuman Rights Project — the name is self-explanatory — was filed on behalf of a pair of chimpanzees housed at the university out on Long Island.

The Nonhuman Rights Project styles itself as “the only organization working through the common law to achieve actual legal rights for members of species other than our own.” The organization’s goal is quite explicit: “Our mission is the change the common law status of nonhuman animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons,’ who possess fundamental rights.”

The group has filed previous lawsuits attempting to get a judge to grant an order that would free the chimps. Those others failed, but now Nonhuman Rights Project officials are claiming that this judge’s order could result in a de facto classification of the two chimps as “legal persons.”

“For the first time in history a judge has granted an order to show cause and writ of habeas corpus on behalf of an animal,” the NRP group stated in a news release. “Under the law of New York State, only a ‘legal person’ may have an order to show cause and writ of habeas corpus issued in his or her behalf. The court has therefore implicitly determined that Hercules and Leo [the two chimps] are ‘persons.’ ”

Actually, though, Judge Jaffe later amended the title of her order to remove the phrase “writ of habeas corpus.” What happens next is a hearing at which Stony Brook University representatives will appear to show cause why they have reason to “detain” the chimps. That hearing is scheduled for May 27 in New York City.

Uncovering the real reasons

Of course, this isn’t the first time activist attorneys have attempted to sue in court as a backdoor way of garnering legal status for animals. In 2012, PETA sued SeaWorld, claiming that the orcas at its amusement parks were being held as “slaves” in violation of the 13th Amendment. The lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution apply only to humans.

PETA, however, files lawsuits mainly for the publicity they generate. They’ll go to court with some outrageous argument that the media lap up like a litter of kittens, rather than fashion a compelling legal brief that might actually sway a judge.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, on the other hand, is seriously trying to establish a new legal benchmark. They’re experts at trolling for vulnerable defendants, seeking out favorable jurisdictions and inventing ways to leverage case law such that non-human plaintiffs could someday achieve “standing” in a court somewhere. Their basic argument is that the law is “evolving,” and thus the notion that animals should be afforded legal representation, a reversal of centuries of precedence, is merely the non-human version of Brown v. Board of Education overturning Plessy v. Ferguson.

Look, it’s obvious why there are scores of lawyers working on animal rights. Although some are dedicated advocates who believe that jurisprudence is best pathway to protect animals from abuse, the majority of the ones I’ve encountered are in it for the glory. I mean, there aren’t that many legal frontiers left these days, and an ambitious attorney or a group of lawyers would become instant legal rocks stars if they were able to establish precedence for animal rights.

It would be a monumental quagmire for the courts, but a veritable gold mine for the lawyers.

In reality, however, there is a clear, bright line that separates people and animals, and unlike all the parallels activists try to draw with slavery, that distinction is not “evolving.”

Domestic animals — pets, livestock, working animals, companions animals, farm and food animals — are legally owned by people. They must be treated and handled humanely according to applicable local, state and federal laws, but they’re not people and they have no legal rights, no standing in court and no recognition as creatures possessing the same status as their owners.

Wildlife, especially land and marine mammals, are also protected from egregious harm and can only be hunted, trapped or fished in accordance with applicable laws.

All other animals — insects, sponges, worms, protozoa — are on their own.

Case closed.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator