Primate Rescue Center

Chimpanzees Are People, Too

Erika Fleury October 31, 2014

Tommy is 26 years old. He is being held in solitary confinement in a wire cage. He has never been convicted of any crime, or even accused of one. He is not in Guantanamo, but in upstate Gloversville, New York.

How is this possible? Because Tommy is a chimpanzee.

Now the Nonhuman Rights Project has invoked the ancient legal procedure of habeas corpus (Latin for “you have the body”) to bring Tommy’s imprisonment before a state appeals court.

Attorney Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project, left, argues on behalf of Tommy, a chimpanzee, before the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division on Oct. 8, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. Photo courtesy Mike Groll / AP.

The writ is typically used to get a court to consider whether the detention of a prisoner or perhaps someone confined to a mental institution is lawful. The court is being asked to send Tommy to a sanctuary in Florida, where he can live with other chimps on a 3-acre island in a lake.

Five appellate judges listened attentively this month as Nonhuman Rights Project founder Steve Wise presented the case for Tommy. The judges asked sensible questions, including the obvious one: Isn’t legal personhood just for human beings?

Wise cited legal precedents to show that it is not. In civil law, to be a person is to count as an entity in one’s own right. A corporation can be a legal person, and so, too, can a river, a holy book and a mosque.

The judges have the power to declare Tommy a legal person. That is what they should do, and not only because it is cruel to keep a chimpanzee in solitary confinement. The real reason for recognizing Tommy as a legal person is that he is a person, in the proper and the philosophical sense of that term.

What is a person? We can trace the term back to Roman times, and show that it was never limited to human beings. Early Christian theologians debated the doctrine of the Trinity — that God is “three persons in one.” If “person" meant “human being,” that doctrine would be plainly contrary to Christian belief, for Christians hold that only one of those “persons” was ever a human being.

In more contemporary usage, in science fiction movies, we have no difficulty in grasping that aliens like the extraterrestrial in “E.T.,” or the Na’vi in “Avatar,” are persons, even though they are not members of the species Homo sapiens.

In reading the work of scientists like Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey, we have no difficulty in recognizing that the great apes they describe are persons.

They have close and complex personal relationships with others in their group. They grieve for lost loved ones. They are self-aware beings, capable of thought. Their foresight and anticipation enable them to plan ahead. We can even recognize the rudiments of ethics in the way they respond to other apes who fail to return a favor.

Zulu is one of many chimpanzees living in residence at the Primate Rescue Center.

Contrary to the caricatures of some opponents of this lawsuit, declaring a chimpanzee a person doesn’t mean giving him or her the right to vote, attend school or sue for defamation. It simply means giving him or her the most basic, fundamental right of having legal standing, rather than being considered a mere object.

Over the past 30 years, European laboratories have, in recognition of the special nature of chimpanzees, freed them from research labs. That left only the United States still using chimpanzees in medical research, and last year the National Institutes of Health announced that it was retiring almost all of the chimpanzees utilized in testing and sending them to a sanctuary.

If the nation’s leading medical research agency has decided that, except possibly in very unusual circumstances, it will not use chimpanzees as research subjects, why are we allowing individuals to lock them up for no good reason at all?

It is time for the courts to recognize that the way we treat chimpanzees is indefensible. They are persons and we should end their wrongful imprisonment.

- New York Daily News

Recent Entries

Archive

Share | |

Recent Video

Newsletter

Sign up for the PRC Newsletter and receive regular updates about our efforts to help primates in the wild and in captivity. Fill in your email address below.

Your Email

Our Privacy Policy