Human rights for chimpanzees? NY court to decide in landmark legal battle

Human rights for chimpanzees? NY court to decide in landmark legal battle
In what is called the first case of its kind, a New York court is to decide whether Tommy the chimpanzee is being unlawfully kept by his owner and is entitled to “legal personhood”, in other words the legal rights of a human.

On Wednesday an appeals court in Albany, New York, will consider the case of 26-year old Tommy.

The lawyer behind the landmark case, Steven Wise, describes Tommy’s home as a “dark, dank shed” and says he should be moved to a chimpanzee sanctuary in Florida.

Mr Wise is using a legal mechanism called habeas corpus, which is usually filed on behalf of prison inmates who say they have been unlawfully imprisoned.

Mr Wise is part of an organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project, which fights for “actual legal rights for members of species other than our own.”

“As a matter of both liberty and equality, Tommy should be seen as a person,” insisted Wise, as quoted by the New York Post.

Research by cognitive experts shows that Chimpanzees have autonomous and self-determining qualities similar to human beings, said Wise, as quoted by the New York Post.

Scientists from the University of Michigan, published research in March this year that challenged human and chimp participants to complete a virtual-reality computer game, they found that overall the chimps outperformed their human counterparts.

Tommy’s owner, Patrick Lavery, has decided not to lodge his side of the argument before the New York appeals court and has been unavailable to comment for some time, Reuters reported.

However last year when the case was first filed he insisted that Tommy’s home – labeled a “dank, dark shed” by Wise - in fact cost $150,000. Lavery added that Tommy has been on a waiting list for three years for a primate sanctuary in Florida.

“He’s got a lot of enrichment. He’s got color TV, cable and a stereo. He likes being by himself,” insisted Lavery to the Albany Times Union last year.

Reuters / Finbarr O'Reilly

But this was not the conclusion that Wise reached when he visited Tommy last November.

“Tommy did not look happy. Chimps are extraordinarily social beings. Keeping him in solitary confinement is essentially the equivalent of putting me in solitary confinement,” he said.

Wise filed writs of habeas corpus on behalf of four chimpanzees in the state of New York in December 2013, including for Tommy.

Initially these cases have all so-far been rejected by New York State courts but some of the judges have been sympathetic to the cause.

“You make a very strong argument. However, I do not agree with the argument only insofar as (habeas corpus) applies to chimpanzees. Good luck with your venture. I’m sorry I can’t sign the order, but I hope you continue. As an animal lover, I appreciate your work,” said Justice Joseph Sise about Tommy’s case in December, as quoted by the New York Post.

All of them, including that of Tommy have progressed to the intermediate appellate courts in New York.

A spokesman for the Nonhuman Rights Project, Michael Mountain, said that his organization had chosen New York to file these cases because it has a favorable legal system with regards to habeas corpus. Mountain said that New York has an automatic right of appeal if a habeas corpus petition is rejected.

“That is in many ways what we would be looking for. When it goes to an appellate court, you get a much broader ruling. We’re assuming it’s quite possible that (local) judges, since there are no precedents for anything like this so far, will want to put it up to an appeals court. We’re not looking for a complete victory at the first stage of this,” Mountain told the Buffalo News.

Wise said that if Tommy’s case is successful then it could lead to other mammals being given an expansion of rights, such as elephants, dolphins and orcas.