Rattling the cage: Court weighs in on personhood for non-humans

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

A New York court will decide this fall whether to apply “legal personhood” to an animal in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit filed on behalf of Tommy the Chimp.

On Oct. 8, a panel of five judges for the New York State Appeals Court heard from attorney Steven M. Wise, with the nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project, on behalf of a 26-year-old chimpanzee.

 Tommy is owned as a pet and kept in a “dank shed” in upstate New York. Wise wants him to be relocated to the world’s largest chimpanzee retreat, the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Florida. He also wants to convince the court that primates and other intelligent animals are entitled to “legal personhood” and deserving of such basic rights as freedom from imprisonment.

“No one has ever demanded a common law legal right for a nonhuman animal until now,” Wise said, asserting that his legal claim for Tommy is rooted in genetic, cognitive, evolutionary and taxonomic evidence that chimps are self-aware and autonomous.

Tommy’s case was filed in New York’s court system in December 2013, along with other lawsuits seeking the release of:

• Kiko, a 26-year-old chimp who lives in a cage on private property in Niagara Falls and was previously used in the entertainment industry.

• Hercules and Leo, young chimps who are owned by the New Iberia Research Center and used in biomedical research in the anatomy department at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York.

In a parallel campaign, the NHRP is building a series of lawsuits on behalf of elephants, another highly intelligent species, being held in circuses and zoos.

Other organizations also are advocating personhood status for animals — elephants, dolphins and whales, as well as chimps, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos, humans’ closest relatives in the animal kingdom.

“There are 15 features to the human personality,” said animal rights advocate Shirley Maewhether of Madison. “A corporation doesn’t have them and yet it can have legal personhood. The great apes do have them all: intelligence, self-control, sense of time, sense of past, concern and care for others, curiosity, an ability to reason, feelings.

“They are not things. The are nonhuman persons.”

On Oct. 8, the judges in Albany who heard Tommy’s case asked:

• Isn’t legal personhood just about human beings? Wise observed that courts have extended legal person status to non-human entities and things.

• If relocated, wouldn’t Tommy still be confined? Wise said the chimp currently is in solitary confinement in a warehouse-like setting but the sanctuary consists of 13 islands and an artificial lake.

• Why aren’t animal welfare groups involved in the case? Wise said Tommy’s case is about unlawful imprisonment rather than animal welfare.

“Keeping a legal person in solitary confinement in a cage is unlawful,” Wise said.

The appeals court is expected to issue a ruling in six to eight weeks. 

Then, in December, comes Kiko’s day in court.