Animal Rights Group Files Lawsuit Seeking 'Legal Personhood' For Chimpanzees

By Josh Lieberman on December 4, 2013 6:26 PM EST

chimpanzee rights
The Nonhuman Rights Project is seeking "legal personhood" for chimpanzees in three lawsuits filed in New York. (Photo: Reuters)

An animal rights group has filed the first-ever lawsuit seeking legal personhood for chimpanzees. The Nonhuman Rights Project filed the lawsuit in the Fulton County Court in New York on behalf of Tommy, a 26-year-old chimp being held in a used trailer lot in Gloversville, N.Y. Tommy's is the first of two lawsuits that the group filed in New York this week; a third lawsuit will be filed tomorrow on behalf of two chimps being experimented on at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

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In the filing for Tommy's case, the Nonhuman Rights Project asked the court to consider the chimp "a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned." The group said that Tommy's "small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed" should be considered unlawful, and that he should be released to a sanctuary belonging to the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.

"We spent five years looking at all 50 states to determine which states might have the most favorable laws for us," said attorney Steven Wise, who founded the Nonhuman Rights Project. "We had to run several thousand evaluations and write some very long memos, and through that we slowly narrowed it down to several states." The group settled on New York as the state most favorable to his cause, but Wise isn't confident that the judgement will go his way due to a lack of legal precedent.  

Wise and his group included affidavits from scientists attesting to chimpanzee's cognitive functions, such as their ability to make decisions, form memories and emote.   

"As a matter of liberty, we have affidavits from nine of the top working primatologists in the world who make it clear that chimpanzees have extraordinarily complex cognitive abilities, and these include the ability to live their lives in an autonomous way," Wise told the Guardian. "This is a cognitive ability that courts ferociously protect and our argument is that any place where these complex cognitive abilities are found in any being--species should be irrelevant--the courts should recognize that."

David Favre, a professor of animal law at Michigan State University, said that the group's efforts were "a serious legal strategy" and that chimps should have legal recognition. Although chimpanzees are protected by animal welfare laws, the cases are rarely prosecuted, Favre said. If the group's efforts succeed, it would be the first time a court has "[taken] jurisdiction over the chimpanzee and move it someplace more suitable to its needs."

The legal case the group is making is based on habeas corpus, a fundamental American right which ensures that people aren't unlawfully detained. (For example, being held in jail for more than a few days without being charged would be a violation of habeas corpus.) Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe told the New York Times that the habeas corpus legal approach was "as good a place to begin as any." Although habeas corpus has only been used on humans before, "that need not be decisive if one remembers that the central point of the writ is to impose the restraints of law on those who wield power in the people's name," Tribe said.

Animal rights groups have had a number of global legal victories in recent years. In 2008, Spain granted chimpanzees the right to life and freedom. In May of this year, India declared dolphins to be "nonhuman persons," banning them from being held captive for entertainment purposes. 

The U.S. and Gabon are the only two nations to allow biomedical experiments on chimps, though the U.S. is reducing the practice.

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