Animals: Monkey See, Monkey Sue (for Legal Custody)

Are chimpanzees more like babies or bicycles? Put another way: are they beings with basic rights, or property to be returned to an owner? The answer may decide the fate of Emma and Jackson, two chimps at the center of a custody battle between animal sanctuaries in Texas and Oregon.

The pair were among more than 200 animals removed from San Antonio's Primarily Primates Inc. after the facility was sued last year for misusing funds and maintaining unsanitary and dangerous conditions. Now the suit has been settled, and PPI is petitioning to reclaim some of the creatures. Emma and Jackson's new home, Oregon's Chimps, Inc., doesn't want to return them. "To return them to the scene of the crime, if you will, is no different than returning a young child to an abuse situation and saying, 'Everything's better now'," says Bruce Wagman, an animal-law specialist representing Chimps, Inc., and others battling PPI.

"This isn't about establishing rights for animals," says Priscilla Feral, president of the animal-advocacy group Friends of Animals, which took over PPI's operations this year. (The center has spent $100,000 rebuilding its facilities, including a new 6,000-foot chimp enclosure, and has increased staffing.) "Those animals belong to Primarily Primates. They will have wonderful care, and they deserve to come back. The legal documents support that, and that ought to be sufficient."

Animal welfare is a relatively new legal argument, one that doesn't yet trump claims of ownership, says Michigan State law professor and animal-rights expert David Favre. But the two arguments may not be mutually exclusive—animals can remain property and still acquire rights. "Some judges are not finding it incongruous to acknowledge that animals are part of the 'prop world,' but because they're such unique, living property, they also ought to look at the best interests of the animals," Favre says. So where ownership is at all vague or questionable, emerging concern for animal rights may tip the scale.