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TommySeeking Personhood: Tommy the Chimp Will Get His Day in Court

Story and Picture by Alicia GraefOctober 7, 20141:00 pm


Seeking Personhood: Tommy the Chimp Will Get His Day in Court

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is headed back to court this week in a landmark case seeking legal personhood for a 26-year-old chimpanzee named Tommy.

Last December, the NhRP filed three groundbreaking lawsuits in New York on behalf of Tommy, and three other chimpanzees in the state that the group is seeking to have moved to a sanctuary that is part of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA). According to the group, Tommy is currently being kept alone in a “small cement cage in a dark shed in the back of a used trailer lot.”

Even if we look at Tommy’s situation and conclude it’s wrong to keep him that way, as the group noted, “one’s awareness that Tommy’s situation is not ‘right’ is in another sense meaningless because Tommy, like any number of cognitively complex, self-aware nonhuman animals, is not a being whom the law recognizes as having any legal rights. What Tommy’s ‘owners’ are doing has been considered legal since the advent of our legal system and well before.”

The NhRP filed the lawsuits under the writ of habeus corpus, which is used to challenge imprisonment and was used in a landmark case in 1772 in which a judge ruled an American slave named James Somerset was not a piece of property. Somerset’s case didn’t end legalized slavery, but it did set the stage.

In the cases for the chimpanzees, the NhRP argued, not that they are human, but that they are entitled to live with basic rights to bodily liberty and bodily integrity – that they should have the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned based on their intelligence, self-awareness and autonomy.

As it stands, non-human animals are seen by the law as things, or property, that have no legal rights, not as persons. The legal wall that separates human animals from non-human animals is exactly what the NhRP is trying to break down. They’ll also be pursuing cases for elephants and cetaceans in the future. According to the group:

Courts recognize that a sufficient, though not necessary condition of a fundamental right like bodily liberty is the possession of certain qualities. With over half a century of scientific evidence to support our legal arguments, and affidavits submitted in support of our lawsuit by an international group of the world’s most respected primatologists, our lawsuits set out to establish that chimpanzees possess such complex cognitive abilities as autonomy, self-determination, self-consciousness, awareness of the past, anticipation of the future, and the ability to make choices; that they display complex emotions like empathy; and that they construct diverse cultures. The possession of these characteristics is sufficient to establish personhood and the consequential fundamental right to bodily liberty.

While the courts denied the writs of habeus corpus, they left the door wide open for appeals. In Tommy’s case, Judge Joseph Sise even offered words of encouragement, stating: “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.”

According to the NhRP, the result was not surprising because changing common law is typically left up to the higher courts.

“These were the outcomes we expected. All nonhuman animals have been legal things for centuries. That is not going to change easily,” said Steven M. Wise, NhRP’s president. “What we didn’t expect, however, were the strong words of encouragement and support from the judges and their acknowledgement of the strength of our arguments. So we are now in a good position to appeal each decision to the appropriate New York Appellate Division.”

For chimpanzees, the lawsuits themselves added to more victories on their behalf following an announcement from the National Institutes of Health that it would retire most of the government owned chimps used in research and a proposal to classify them as an endangered species – both moves that would make it more difficult or impossible to keep and exploit them.

These changes are long overdue. There’s certainly no shortage of evidence to suggest chimpanzees are far more than things and that body of evidence keeps growing. A study published last month concluded that chimpanzees who are kept as pets suffer far more than we thought. Another added evidence to the argument that they pass on knowledge to each other and have unique cultures like us. The more we learn about them, the more obvious it is that we have grossly underestimated them.

This week Tommy’s case will be heard by five judges in New York’s Supreme Court. If the NhRP wins they will make history and Tommy will be moved, but whatever the outcome of the case, it’s exciting to see this new approach be taken seriously by the courts while at the same time the mere existence of these cases is forcing us to consider questioning how we see and treat other sentient species.


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