NY court asked to give chimpanzee 'legal person' status

Mother and baby chimpanzees at Los Angeles Zoo on 4 September 2013 The group will use testimony from scientists to show the court that chimpanzees should be granted "legal personhood"

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A US animal rights group is calling on a New York court to recognise a chimpanzee as a legal person, in what is believed to be a legal first.

The Nonhuman Rights Project wants a chimp named Tommy to be granted "legal personhood" and thus entitled to the "fundamental right of bodily liberty".

The group is planning to file the same lawsuit on behalf of three other chimps across New York this week.

It wants the four to be released from their captivity.

They should be taken to a sanctuary that is a member of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, the group argues.

Start Quote

Once we prove that chimpanzees are autonomous, that should be sufficient for them to gain legal personhood ”

End Quote Steven Wise Nonhuman Rights Project
'Tons of toys'

The group filed the lawsuit on behalf of Tommy on Monday.

"We are claiming that chimpanzees are autonomous - that is, being able to self-determine, be self-aware, and be able to choose how to live their own lives," its founder Steven Wise told the Associated Press news agency.

Scientists' evidence is included in the lawsuits.

"Once we prove that chimpanzees are autonomous, that should be sufficient for them to gain legal personhood and at least have their fundamental interests protected by human rights," Mr Wise said.

Tommy, the group said, "is being held captive in a shed at a used-trailer lot" in Gloversville, New York.

Patrick Lavery, owner of the site where Tommy lives, said the chimp's cage was spacious "with tons of toys".

He said he rescued Tommy from his previous home, where he had been badly treated, but had been unsuccessful in placing him in a sanctuary because there was no room.

"If [the Nonhuman Rights Group] were to see where this chimp lived for the first 30 years of his life, they would jump up and down for joy about where he is now," Mr Lavery told the New York Times.

The lawsuit invokes the common law writ of habeas corpus, the right to challenge unlawful detention.

The group says it is dedicated to changing the common law status of species considered autonomous, and could eventually file lawsuits on behalf of gorillas, orangutans, whales, dolphins and elephants.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    All animals have feelings like humans & we should treat them with respect & care. Ironically, there are people with whom their living conditions are far below the standards of some pets living in some developed world! We should rather focus our efforts on how to make this planet a better place to live, instead of pointless debates.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    Dismissing this by saying 'they're animals' makes no sense. If I wanted to kick a dog to death, few people would accept 'but it's an animal' as a defence -because they know that the distinction is irrelevant to the harm caused. Likewise, saying 'they're chimps' is factually accurate but irrevelevant. The question is, can they suffer harm. If they can, they have interests.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    I don't think chimps (or any other animals, come to that) should be kept in squalid conditions, but not even chimps have 'rights'.
    They need to campaign for all animals to be treated fairly and with dignity and respect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    I love primates and don't want them contained in unsuitable environs but classifying them as 'people' is ridiculous. If the project believe ability to "choose how to live their own lives" makes a person does that mean that babies are not people? I think zoos play an important part in highlighting plight of endangered animals and one primate in a zoo protects several in the wild

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    They're animals not humans, they shouldn't have the same rights as humans, because they lack the mental abilities that humans have. But that's not to say animals shouldn't have some basic rights such as not being tortured, hunted to extinction or if kept in a zoo sufficient and appropriate space to move around in.


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