A chimpanzee whose lawyer argued ought to be recognised as a “legal person” has lost his appeal at a court in New York.
In what is thought to be the first court case of its kind, Steven Wise, the president of animal advocacy group the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), claimed Tommy, a 40ish year-old chimp, was so similar to humans that he and his species deserved basic human rights.
Tommy, who lives alone in an enclosure on a caravan park in Gloversville, New York, suffered conditions comparable to a person in solitary confinement, Mr Wise told the court in Albany.
Citing a legal mechanism once used on behalf of slaves, he argued that Tommy was unlawfully imprisoned and ought to be released to live at a chimp sanctuary in Florida.
The court agreed that apes shared many human characteristics, but said they were unable to contribute to society sufficiently to warrant human rights or “legal personhood”.
In the ruling, Justice Karen Peters wrote: “So far as legal theory is concerned, a person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights and duties... unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions.”
In a 65-page legal brief, the NhRP argued that children and mentally disabled adults have legal rights, despite being unable to fulfil the social responsibilities of mature adults. The brief explained that chimps are “autonomous, self-determined, self-aware, highly intelligent, and emotionally complex beings” that fit the legal profile of a “person”. “Person is not a synonym for ‘human being’,” the brief said, “but designates an entity with the capacity for legal rights”.
A former circus performer, Tommy reportedly spends his day watching cartoons and nature programmes. His owner of approximately 10 years, Patrick Lavery, declined to present his case to the appeals court, but has said Tommy’s home is a state-of-the-art $150,000 (£93,400) enclosure. Last year, Mr Lavery told the Albany Times Union that Tommy has “got a lot of enrichment. He’s got colour TV, cable and a stereo... He likes being by himself.”
The NhRP did not claim that Tommy had been mistreated, and Mr Lavery insists he is cared for according to state and federal license rules. But, said Natalie Prosin of the NhRP: “This isn’t an animal welfare case; this is an animal rights case. What we’re concerned with is that Tommy is viewed as a legal ‘thing’. He’s a piece of property, and we want that to change under the law, because Tommy deserves to have his autonomy respected.”
The NhRP purports to be “the only organisation working toward actual legal rights for members of species other than our own.” Its mission, according to its website, is “to change the common law status of at least some non-human animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons’.”
The organisation said it would appeal the decision. Tommy’s case is just the first of several being developed by the NhRP, which intends to fight for broader rights not only for apes, but also for other intelligent animals such as elephants, orcas and dolphins.
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