Primate Rescue Center

Tommy the Chimpanzee who Features in Documentary Reported Missing

Erika Fleury May 30, 2016

A chimpanzee at the center of a new animal rights documentary by an Oscar-winning filmmaker has been reported missing from his cage at a Michigan zoo.

Tommy, a 28-year-old chimpanzee, features in Unlocking the Cage by Oscar nominee Chris Hegedus and Oscar winner Donn Alan 'DA' Pennebaker, which is being touted as 'the Blackfish for chimps'. However Tommy is now missing from his cage at a roadside zoo in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Tommy at his original enclosure in New York. Image courtesy AP / Daily Mail

According to Showbiz 411, staff at the zoo are desperately trying to find Tommy and return him to the enclosure. By law the primate has to be reported dead if there is evidence to suggest as such, but no report has been filed.

Tommy was moved to Michigan from a controversial living situation in Gloversville, New York. Florida-based attorney Steven Wise, who teaches at Harvard Law School, sued in 2013 to have Tommy moved to a sanctuary in Ft. Pierce in Florida, where the chimp could live without a cage. After losing the case, Tommy was moved to the zoo in Michigan. 

Wise, a prominent animal rights activist, has been fighting to secure a writ of  habeas corpus for various chimpanzees that are currently locked up in zoos or research labs. This requires persuading a judge that a chimpanzee counts as a non-human person. Unlocking the Cage follows Wise's fight to get his case to be heard.

In 2014, a New York appeals court rejected Wise's bid to extend 'legal personhood' to chimpanzees, saying the primates are incapable of bearing the responsibilities that come with having legal rights.The unanimous ruling meant that Tommy was not entitled to the rights of a human and did not have to be freed by its owner. A five-judge panel of the Albany court said Wise had shown that Tommy, who lived alone in a shed in upstate New York, was an autonomous creature, but that it was not possible for him to understand the social contract that binds humans together. 'So far as legal theory is concerned, a person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights and duties,' Presiding Justice Karen Peters wrote. 'Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions,' That, they ruled, makes it 'inappropriate' to grant the rights of a human to the animal.

Wise, representing The Nonhuman Rights Project, which he helped found in 2007, was seeking a ruling that Tommy had been unlawfully imprisoned by his owner, Patrick Lavery. Wise argued that the chimp should be released to a sanctuary in Florida. According to Wise and other experts, it is the first case anywhere in the world in which an appeals court has been asked to extend human rights to animals. There was no initial response to an email sent to Wise with a question about the possibility of a further appeal to the state's top court.

Tommy's owner, Patrick Lavery, said after the decision was handed down that he was pleased and expected the ruling. 'I just couldn't picture any court granting habeas corpus for an animal,' he said. 'If it works for one animal, it works for all animals. It would open a can of worms.'

Tommy is a former entertainment chimp who was placed with Lavery about 10 years ago. Lavery said Tommy is cared for under strict state and federal license rules and inspections.

- Daily Mail

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