A recent New York lawsuit is the first of its kind to demand “legal personhood” for captive chimpanzees.
On Dec. 2, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Court on behalf of a chimpanzee named Tommy who is currently being held captive in a small cement cage in a dark shed.
According to Reuters, the lawsuit asks the judge to declare 26-year-old Tommy “a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.”
The organization asks the court to recognize Tommy as a legal person with “the right to bodily liberty.” The lawsuit also requests that captive chimpanzees like Tommy be released to a sanctuary that is part of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA). This would allow Tommy to live in as close to a natural environment as is possible in North America.
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Chimpanzees like Tommy “possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they’re found in human beings,” Steven Wise, the president of Nonhuman Rights Project, told Reuters.
“There’s no reason why they should not be protected when they’re found in chimpanzees,” he added.
Wise had reportedly just returned from a trip to Uganda, where he observed healthy chimpanzees in the wild. After reading in a local newspaper that owners Patrick and Diane Lavery were keeping exotic animals at their used trailer lot, Wise decided to pay Tommy a visit.
“He looked terrible,” Wise told Reuters. “Hey [sic] looked like a caged chimpanzee — they don’t move, they don’t look at you. They look depressed.”
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The Laverys were reportedly unavailable for comment.
Wise added that he believes the lawsuit was filed early enough that the organization has “a reasonable chance of winning.”
“These are the first cases in an open-ended, strategic litigation campaign,” he said. “We’re just going to keep filing suits.”
Reuters adds that the Nonhuman Rights Project had originally begun its nationwide search for “an optimal venue to file the lawsuits” in 2007. The organization ultimately decided on New York because the state is generally flexible when handling requests against unlawful detention.
According to The Telegraph, the National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins called chimps “very special animals” that deserve “special consideration.”