This has been quite a year for captive chimpanzees in the United States, with one federal agency taking steps to retire most chimps owned by the government and another proposing to classify all chimps as endangered, an action that would throw up new obstacles to experiments even on privately owned chimps.
Activists have relished their successes, while some scientists have deplored restrictions on the use of the animals, which have played a crucial role in some biomedical research, such as work on hepatitis C vaccines.
All the activity so far has focused on the welfare of the chimps. Now, an animal-rights group has heightened the crusade by taking action to try to establish legal rights for chimpanzees, something far more controversial.
The Nonhuman Rights Project, led by Steven Wise, filed papers Monday in a state court in Fulton County, N.Y., demanding that courts in New York recognize a chimpanzee known as Tommy as a legal person, with a limited right to liberty. The petition asks the court to remove him from his owners and place him in a sanctuary.
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Tommy is a privately owned chimp in Gloversville, N.Y., that the group says “is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used-trailer lot.” The group said it intended to file suit later this week on behalf of three more chimps in New York, also demanding their freedom.
Two of the chimpanzees are believed to be owned by the New Iberia Research Center, at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, but are housed at Stony Brook University for a study of locomotion. The fourth is owned by Carmen Presti, of Niagara Falls, N.Y., according to the rights project, who runs the Primate Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization that displays apes.
Patrick C. Lavery, the owner of Circle L Trailer Sales in Gloversville, where Tommy lives, said he had heard about the petition from reporters. He said from his home in Florida that he had complied with all state and federal regulations, that Tommy had a spacious cage “with tons of toys,” and that he had been trying to place him in sanctuaries but that they had no room. He said he had rescued the chimp from a bad situation. He said of the group filing the petition, “If they 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.”
Lavery said he had not seen or been officially notified of the petition.
The use of habeas corpus actions is a time-honored legal strategy for addressing unlawful imprisonment of human beings.
Wise, who has written about the use of habeas corpus in the anti-slavery movement, makes an argument in a 70-plus-page memo rich with legal, scientific and philosophical references that being human is not essential to having rights. He argues that captive chimps are, in fact, enslaved, and that the same principles apply to their cases as to those of humans who were enslaved.
“This petition asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned,” the court filing says.
David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law, who teaches animal law but is not associated with the rights project or the legal action, said he was familiar with Wise’s arguments, which he called “a serious legal strategy.”
He said such a strategy had not been tried before in the United States. “It is unique,” Favre said.
Chimps were granted certain legal rights by the Spanish Parliament in 2008, and efforts have been made in other countries to give them rights.
Wise is not asking the courts to declare the chimps equivalent to human beings. But in New York, animals are considered legal persons to allow them to be beneficiaries of trusts, Wise said. (In a similar way, a corporation is also considered a legal person.)
Because the rights group has set up a trust for all four chimps, they are already legal persons, he argues.
He also marshals evidence from various scientists that a chimpanzee has qualities, including awareness of self, past and future, that should provide it with a right to bodily liberty.
The request is not for the chimps to be set completely free, either in Africa or New York, but to be moved to one of the eight sanctuaries in the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.