The first of several lawsuits has been launched in the New York State Supreme Court on December 2 by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), to ask the court to recognize a chimpanzee as a legal person with a right to liberty. The lawsuit states that chimpanzees deserve “legal personhood.”
The NhRP was formed by animal rights attorney, Steven Wise and has, as part of the group, around 60 lawyers, scientists, as well as policy experts to back up their claims.
The initial lawsuit is on behalf of Tommy, a chimpanzee currently held captive in a cage in a dark shed, which is apparently located at the back of a used car lot in Gloversville, NY. However talks of the litigation have apparently been in the works since around 2007.
Further lawsuits are planned in the future, and will be filed in both Niagara Falls and Long Island on December 3 and 4 respectively, seeking to liberate a primate currently living in a private home, and two further chimps which are apparently held captive and being used in animal experimentation at Stony Brook University.
There were two lawsuits planned on behalf of two other chimps, held captive in a roadside zoo. However, regrettably these chimps died before the lawsuits could be initiated.
Partly, what the lawsuit is stating that chimps, and more specifically great apes, feel empathy and loss, can recognize themselves in photos, can be taught sign language to communicate with humans and can even do basic math.
Therefore the petition asks the court to issue a writ to recognize that the chimp is not a thing to be possessed, but is rather a “cognitively complex autonomous legal person” who has the legal right not to be imprisoned.
The lawsuit wishes to remove Tommy, along with any others in a similar situation from their abusive owners, and to place them in an animal sanctuary. The animals could then enjoy a more natural and pleasant experience in an environment as close as possible to that of the species’ natural home.
According to the NhRP, Tommy was originally one of six chimpanzees at the Gloversville business, and he is the only one still surviving. They are concerned that Tommy could also die before having “a chance to climb in trees and walk on grass, like others of his own kind.”
When the owner of the Gloversville business, Patrick Lavery, was interviewed about the lawsuit, he claimed that the chimp lives in a spacious cage with many toys to amuse him. He says that Tommy is better off than where he previously lived. In fact, he told the New York Times that if the group could see where Tommy lived before, they would be more than happy with the circumstances he lives in now.
Lavery stresses that he complies with all the necessary regulations involving owning a chimpanzee and said that he has been trying to find a sanctuary for Tommy, but that none have room for the chimp.
Should the NhRP be successful in their lawsuits, they have already set up trusts for the four animals.
The group is already preparing lawsuits in other states, not only relating to chimpanzees, but also involving dolphins, elephants, gorillas, orangutans and whales. In fact, as they state, to assist any animals with cognitive capabilities living in confined spaces, including zoos and aquariums.
The NhRP project spokesman states that however the initial lawsuits turn out, they will continue to file as many lawsuits as they can over the next 10 or 20 years. This would be a major achievement for chimpanzees and other animals who deserve legal personhood under this new litigation.
By Anne Sewell