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Are Chimps People? A Major Animal Rights Lawsuit Says Yes

Corporations are people, so why not chimpanzees?
December 2, 2013, 10:45pm

A chimpanzee, but not Tommy, via Valentina Storti/Flickr

In case you can’t tell from the name, the Nonhuman Rights Project is treading uncharted waters. The organization’s mission is “to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty.” The organization took a dramatic step this morning by filing a lawsuit that asks a judge to grant bodily liberty to a chimpanzee living in captivity named Tommy.

The lawsuit is the result of five years of planning for the best legal strategy and finding best jurisdiction by the NhRP’s 60 lawyers, scientists, and policy makers. New York State was selected for the first lawsuits, because the state recognizes the continuing viability of the common law writ of habeas corpus, which allows, the NhRP argues, “somebody who is being held captive, for example in prison, [to] seek relief by having a judge call upon his captors to show cause as to why they have the right to hold him.”

The group's essential argument is that a chimpanzee can be recognized as “legal person” without biologically being a person. Just as corporations can be people under the Fourteenth Amendment, “legal personality may be granted to entities other than individual human beings, e.g. a group of human beings, a fund, an idol.” The memorandum of law for Tommy’s case cites a case in New Zealand where the Whanganui River Iwi was designated as a legal person, as well as two separate examples from India where a mosque and an idol were granted legal personhood.

If Tommy can be recognized as a legal person then, the case argues, he deserves to be set free under the common law writ of habeas corpus, unless the owner of Santa’s Hitching Post, a tourist attraction where Tommy is kept, can prove that “their imprisonment of Tommy is legally sufficient.”

According to his bio on the NhRP’s website, Tommy lives alone in a small cement cage in shed behind a used trailer lot in Gloversville, New York, that also rents and sells reindeer. “The day our investigators visited [Tommy], the temperature in the shed was about 40 degrees below what it would be in his native land,” the NhRP website states. “The only company he had was a TV that was left on for him at the other side of the shed.”

The lawsuit is the first of three that the NhRP plans to file this week in New York State on behalf of chimpanzees held in captivity. The other two are on behalf of Kiko, who lives in a cage in Niagara Falls and two chimpanzees being used in locomotion studies at Stony Brook University on Long Island. The lawsuits’ goal is to get the chimps moved to a wildlife sanctuary in Florida that’s part of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.

Naturally, it's a big deal for the animal rights movement. The lawsuit comes on the heels of the National Institute of Health's decision to retire its use of chimps as test subjects in research, which was a major step for animal rights advocates in the US. But the legal wrangling has yet to make as big as step as the aforementioned cases in India, where dolphin captivity was banned on moral grounds.

The NhRP's lawsuit could have similar ramifications, but only if it succeeds. An NhRP win would upend millennia of law defining animals as property and could set off a “chain reaction” that could bleed over to other jurisdictions such as limiting scientific research on primates, “but if they lose it could be a significant step backward for the movement,” Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University, told Science, as such a loss would set a fresh legal precedent for animal ownership in the US.