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Video: Can a chimp be human? New York judge to rule on chimpanzee's right to freedom

An animal rights group has filed a lawsuit in New York state demanding that chimpanzees are considered 'legal persons' with a 'fundamental right to bodily liberty'

An American animal rights group has launched legal action seeking to grant chimpanzees “legal personhood”, in order to overhaul treatment of the animals in captivity.

“Our goal is, very simply, to breach the legal wall that separates all humans from all nonhuman animals,” the Nonhuman Rights Project said.

“Once this wall is breached, the first nonhuman animals on earth will gain legal “personhood” and finally get their day in court — a day they so clearly deserve.”

The first of three suits have been filed in a New York court on Wednesday on behalf of Tommy, a 26-year-old chimp who is being held in the state

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the “detention” of Tommy in a “small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed” is unlawful as the animal is a “legal person” with the “fundamental right to bodily liberty”.

It demands his immediate release to a primate sanctuary.

The group said New York state was chosen to launch the preceding because of its generally flexible view of requests for a writ of habeas corpus, a centuries-old right in English law used to challenge unlawful detention, by determining that a legal person cannot be the property of another.

Action will subsequently be launched on behalf of Kiko, a 26-year-old chimp living on a private property in Niagara Falls, and Hercules and Leo, two young male chimps used for research at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

The legal petitions will  “lay out a clear case as to why these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned,” the group said. 

Chimpanzees “possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they're found in human beings,” Steven Wise, the president of Nonhuman Rights Project, added.

“These are the first cases in an open-ended, strategic litigation campaign. We're just going to keep filing suits.”

David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law and an expert on animal law, said it is the first habeas petition filed on behalf of an animal.

“The focus here is whether a chimpanzee is a 'person' that has access to these laws,” said Favre.