3 December 2013, 12:30

American chimpanzee Tommy to be granted 'legal personhood'

American chimpanzee Tommy to be granted 'legal personhood'

Tommy the chimpanzee may soon become a human, at least legally. The Nonhuman Rights Project rights group sued Tommy's owners today, in an attempt to free the 26-year-old primate. The lawsuit is petitioning a New York court to grant Tommy 'legal personhood' based on scientific evidence that chimpanzees have the mental capacity to make decisions for themselves.

The Nonhuman Rights Project has been working on this legal strategy for years, sifting through decisions in all 50 states to find one that is strong on what is called common law, and one that recognizes animals as legal persons for the purpose of being the beneficiary of a trust, NYT writes.

According to The New York Times, the leader of the project, Steven M. Wise, who has written about the history of habeas corpus writs in the fight against human slavery and who views the crusade for animal rights as a lifelong project, said New York fits perfectly.

So Wise filed papers on Monday 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 – the petition does not ask the court to set Tommy free or to send him back to Africa, but to remove him from his owners and place him in a sanctuary.

The group said it intended to file suit later this week on behalf of three more chimps in New York, also demanding their freedom. Two of the chimpanzees are believed to be owned by the New Iberia Research Center, at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, but are housed at Stony Brook University for a study of locomotion. The fourth, according to the rights project, is owned by Carmen Presti of Niagara Falls, who runs the Primate Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization that has monkeys and the one chimpanzee.In all three instances, the group says, the animals are being held captive and, because of key cognitive capacities including the ability to make choices, have a limited right to freedom.

Wise and his group say that Tommy is being held against his will in a 'small, dank, cement cage' at his owner's reindeer farm in Gloversville, New York and would choose a better life if given this choice.

"When we visited Tommy, we found him in a small cage at the back of a dark shed at a trailer sales park," a press release from the Nonhuman Rights Project said. "Tommy was all by himself — his only company being a TV on a table on the opposite wall."

But his owners disagree. Tommy is one of 11 chimps that Patrick Lavery and his wife Diane have taken in from abusive or neglectful homes. They keep the chimps at their farm temporarily so that they can find a suitable sanctuary.

Patrick said he heard about the petition from reporters and his home in Florida complies with all state and federal regulations. He argued 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 badly treated. During the winter, Tommy stays inside in a building heated to 70 degrees, with the walls of his quarters painted to look like a jungle.

'The chimp has a color TV and cable,' Mr Lavery said, 'He watches cartoons.'

“People ought to use common sense,” he said. Of the Nonhuman Rights Project, a group 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.”

'Ive got 20 years experience with chimpanzees. We're not just some Joe Blow on the street who just happens to have a chimpanzee. I've had animals all my life. Horses, dogs, reindeer. It's not a fly-by-night operations,' Tommy’s owner added.

The use of habeas corpus actions is a time-honored legal strategy for addressing unlawful imprisonment of human beings. Wise argues in a 70-plus-page memo rich with legal, scientific and philosophical references that being human is not essential to having rights. He argues that captive chimps are, in fact, enslaved, and that the same principles apply to them as to humans who were enslaved.

“This petition asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned,” the court filing says.

Recently, enormous changes have occurred worldwide in how chimps are viewed and treated. One federal agency in the US is taking steps to retire most chimps owned by the government and another proposing to classify all chimps as endangered, while many ask to stop medical and scientific experiments featuring chimps.

In 2008, chimps were granted certain legal rights by the Spanish Parliament, and some other countries, like India, have attempted similar actions.

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