Court Battle to Give Caged Chimpanzee Human Rights

Published: 09th October 2014 11:04 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th October 2014 11:04 AM   |  A+A-

Chimpanzee_AP

His name is Tommy, he is retired from the circus and he now spends his days watching television in a mobile home park in upstate New York. Tommy is also a 26-year-old chimpanzee who lives in a cage.
And the primate is now having his day in court as activists pursue a landmark lawsuit for him to be the first animal to be declared a person - with the same rights as humans - under US law.


In a hearing before the New York Supreme Court appeals division in Albany, Stephen Wise, a lawyer and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, argued that Tommy is a "legal person" entitled for certain basic protections, including freedom from captivity.


The immediate consequence would be to free Tommy so that he can live out his days in a primate sanctuary in Florida - just as many elderly Americans head to the Sunshine State for their retirement.
But the much-anticipated test case would set a legal precedent in the field of animal rights, touching on fundamental questions about differences between humans and other animals.


Mr Wise is arguing his case not on the basis of animal welfare, but that Tommy was enduring "unlawful imprisonment" in a "small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed" and was entitled to habeas corpus, a writ that requires a person under detention to be brought before a judge.


In his support, he filed affidavits from leading scientists, including Dame Jane Goodall, the British primatologist, about chimpanzees' capacities.


Tommy was not in court and nor was his owner, Patrick Lavery, who co-owns a trailer park. But Mr Lavery has argued that Tommy is a happy pet who has "really got it good" and that his "shed" is a luxurious $150,000 facility. "He's got a lot of enrichment," he told the Albany Times-Union. "He's got colour TV, cable and a stereo. He likes being by himself."


Mr Wise dismissed such claims and said Tommy's condition was the same as a human in solitary confinement. "As a matter of both liberty and equality, Tommy should be seen as a person," he said. A lower court judge earlier expressed sympathy for Mr Wise's arguments while rejecting the case. "You make a very strong argument," said Justice Joseph Sise. "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."


In his lawsuit, Mr Wise argued that "chimpanzees possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they're found in human beings?... there's no reason why they should not be protected when they're found in chimpanzees". Mr Wise argued that his case was based in part on an English court ruling in 1772 when a writ of habeus corpus was issued on behalf of a slave.


He said his group intended to pursue similar cases for other self-aware animals such as elephants, dolphins, orcas, and other great apes. Experts said a ruling could open the door for groups opposed to animal use in medical testing or even in the food industry to pursue lawsuits.


"There are strong legal, practical and ethical problems with this lawsuit," said Bob Kohn, a New York lawyer who filed a "friend of the court" brief opposing Mr Wise. "We have adequate laws to protect animals. If an animal is granted bodily liberty as a person, where do you draw the line? It's simply untenable."
The five judges struck a highly sceptical tone, repeatedly expressing doubt that "personhood" could be conferred on a non-human. They will issue their ruling at a later date.

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