- Our Residents
- The Chimps
- The Monkeys
- Rescue Stories
- In Memoriam
- Interactive Map
- About Us
- Get Involved
- The Issues
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.
That is what an animal rights group claimed on Monday when it filed a classic writ of habeas corpus, that revered staple of American and English law and tired cliché of detective fiction — not for a human being held unlawfully, but for Tommy, a chimpanzee in Gloversville, N.Y.
This is no stunt. 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.
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 fit the bill. His legal action added a milestone to a year that has already been remarkable for chimpanzees, with one federal agency taking steps to retire most chimps owned by the government and another proposing to classify all chimps as endangered, an action that would throw up new obstacles to experiments even on privately owned chimps.
Activists have relished their successes, while some scientists have deplored restrictions on the use of the animals, which have played a crucial role in some biomedical research, such as work on hepatitis C vaccines.
Until now, all the actions have addressed the issue of animal welfare, not animal rights. But Mr. 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.
Tommy, the group says, “is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used-trailer lot.”
The petition does not ask the court to set Tommy free to roam Gloversville, or to send him back to Africa after a life in captivity. It asks the court 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.
Patrick C. Lavery, the owner of Circle L Trailer Sales in Gloversville, where Tommy lives, said he heard about the petition from reporters’ telephone calls. He said 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 badly treated.
“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.”
The other people who are named in the petitions being filed this week did not immediately comment.
The use of habeas corpus actions is a time-honored legal strategy for addressing unlawful imprisonment of human beings. Mr. 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.
Mr. Wise is not asking the courts to declare the chimps equivalent to human beings, any more than a corporation, also considered a legal person, is a human being. Because the rights group has set up a trust for all four chimps, they are already legal persons under New York law, he argues.
He also marshals 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.
David S. Favre, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law, who teaches animal law but is not associated with the rights project or the legal action, said Mr. Wise’s arguments are “a serious legal strategy,” though one that had not been tried before in the United States. “It is unique,” Mr. Favre said. He added, however, that he would not comment on its chances of success.
Laurence H. Tribe, a professor at Harvard Law School, said in an email that in seeking rights for nonhuman animals, “The classic writ of habeas corpus is as good a place to begin as any.”
Though it has been used only on humans, he said, “that need not be decisive if one remembers that the central point of the writ is to impose the restraints of law on those who wield power in the people’s name.”
Enormous changes have occurred worldwide in how chimps are viewed and treated. Only the United States and Gabon allow biomedical experiments on the animals, and the United States is working to phase them out. But the human responsibility to lessen activities that are seen as cruel is far different from conferring chimps with rights under the law — a move that would, among other things, distinguish them from other animals.
Still, the legal action is not unprecedented. Chimps were granted certain legal rights by the Spanish Parliament in 2008, and sporadic efforts in other countries, like India, have had some successes.
In response to their mention in this week's lawsuit, the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance released the following statement:
The North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA), a coalition of eight primate sanctuaries in the US and Canada which care for several hundred chimpanzees, is not a party to the lawsuit filed today by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) on behalf of four chimpanzees in New York State (see here for details). NAPSA was contacted by NhRP for placement assistance on behalf of the chimpanzees should their petition be successful. NAPSA’s Executive Director Sarah Baeckler Davis submitted an affidavit stating that, as in any case, we would follow our routine placement protocols to find the chimpanzees a permanent home at a NAPSA sanctuary should this case be successful. The affidavit also outlines our member sanctuaries' experience and expertise in chimpanzee care. NAPSA's willingness to secure permanent sanctuary for these and any other chimpanzees in need is not necessarily an endorsement by NAPSA or our member sanctuaries of the NhRP lawsuit or its theories.