Should Captive Chimpanzee Have Rights as a 'Legal Person?'

| by Phyllis M Daugherty

“Chimpanzees are not people, no matter how they are dressed up for commercials, but perhaps they are close enough that they deserve some of the same rights humans have,” proposes Nonhuman Rights Project, a group of animal-rights advocates that filed a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Tommy, a chimpanzee being held captive in Gloversville, N.Y.

Following are excerpts from the Dec. 2 New York Times article, “Rights Group Is Seeking Status of ‘Legal Person’ for Captive Chimpanzee,” by James Gorman, as he describes the group’s efforts to have Tommy recognized.

James Gorman explains that Steven M. Wise, who heads the Nonhuman Rights Project, has written about the history of habeas corpus writs in the fight against human slavery, and he argues that captive chimps are, in fact, enslaved. Being human is not essential to having rights, he argues, and the principles that apply to humans who were enslaved also apply to captive chimps.

Wise, on behalf of the Project, has filed papers in State Supreme Court in Fulton County, N.Y., demanding that courts in New York recognize Tommy as a legal person with a right to liberty, but one that has its limits, Gorman writes.

“Tommy, the group says, is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used-trailer lot.” He asks the court to remove Tommy from his owners and place him in a sanctuary.

The owner of Circle L Trailer Sales in Gloversville, where Tommy lives, is Patrick C. Lavery, who said he heard about the petition by telephone calls from reporters. He stated from his home in Florida that he had complied with all state and federal regulations, that Tommy had a spacious cage “with tons of toys,” and that he had been trying to place him in sanctuaries, but that they had no room. He said he had rescued the chimp from his previous home, where he was mistreated.

“People ought to use common sense,” Lavery retorted when advised of the court filing. Of the Nonhuman Rights Project, a group he claims he was not aware of, he said, “If they were to see where this chimp lived for the first 30 years of his life, they would jump up and down for joy about where he is now.”

But Wise garners evidence from various scientists that a chimpanzee has qualities, including awareness of self, past and future, that should provide it with a right to bodily liberty.

The request is not for the chimps to be set completely free, but to be moved to one of the eight sanctuaries in the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.

This year has been remarkable for chimpanzees, Gorman explains. One federal agency acted to retire most government-owned chimps and another proposed to classify all chimps as endangered, which would create new obstacles to experiments — even on privately-owned chimps, he states.

Wise is not asking the courts to declare the chimps equivalent to human beings, but because the rights group has set up a trust for all four chimps, they are already legal persons under New York law, he argues.

But the human responsibility to lessen activities that are seen as cruel is far different from conferring chimps with rights under the law, Gorman writes, a move that would, among other things, distinguish them from other animals.

Source: NY Times