Tommy The Chimp Sues His Captors

| by Allison Geller

Tommy the chimpanzee will go down in history. Though he doesn’t know it, the primate is the first non-human to sue a human captor for his freedom.

Charles Sieber of The New York Times writes about the case of Tommy the chimp, who sued his owner with the help of animal rights lawyer Steven Wise. 

Wise works with the Nonhuman Rights Project (Nh.R.P.), a group dedicated to getting animals legal representation. He discovered the chimp living in a cage he described as a “dungeon" on the property of a former chimp circus leader in the Adirondacks. 

The organization wrote a 106-page memo and petition titled “The Nonhuman Rights Project Inc. on behalf of Tommy,” in which they described the “petitioner’s”—Tommy’s—confinement “in a small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed.”

Nine affidavits from leading primatologists emphasized that Tommy was truly suffering from his living conditions.

“Like humans,” the legal memo reads, “chimpanzees have a concept of their personal past and future . . . they suffer the pain of not being able to fulfill their needs or move around as they wish; [and] they suffer the pain of anticipating never-ending confinement.”

The Nh.R.P. also plans to file lawsuits on behalf of other great apes as well as dolphins, orcas, elephants, and African gray parrots, animals deemed by scientists as having higher-order cognitive abilities. Chimps make a good first case since there is so much research on them, and because there are sanctuaries that could take Tommy.

Wise and his team ended up losing their case arguing that Tommy and two other chimps should be able to seek a writ of habeas corpus. But he says he isn’t discouraged—the case made it to the appellate level in New York, and a justice said he was “impressed” by the lawyers’ arguments.

“For me this has been a 25-year plan. All my books and my courses were designed to help me think through this problem. Now I want to spend the rest of my life litigating,” Wise said.

“If we lose, we keep doing it again and again, until we find a judge who doesn’t feel that the way is closed off. Then our job is to produce the facts that will allow that judge to make that leap of faith. And when it happens, it will be huge. I wouldn’t be spending my life on this otherwise.”

Sources: The New York Times