Chimpanzee Leads Primates Towards Human Rights


In a bizarre case for human rights, a chimpanzee leads the way for primates to earn the rights, and towards a real life Planet of the Apes. Maybe not the world depicted in the 1960’s Charlton Heston classic film, but Tommy, a 26-year-old chimpanzee is heading into an upstate New York courtroom to fight for human rights.

Tommy was formerly a circus performer and now lives in Gloversville, confined to a shed. His only entertainment is watching television, typically nature programs or cartoons. No place to get out and act like a chimpanzee. No trees, not other chimps, just locked away in a sort of solitary confinement. No human would want to live this way, and that is where Steven Wise has stepped in. Wise, a Boston bases lawyer, has come to the aid of Tommy.

The owner of Tommy, Patrick Lavery, indicated that the chimp has been on a waiting list for a sanctuary for nearly three years. Why he has declined to present his case in Albany, NY to the appeals court, he did state that the shack that Tommy lives in is a state-of-the-art, $150,000 enclosure with cable television and a stereo for entertainment.

As Tommy’s lawyer, Wise will argue that chimps, like his client, are entitled to legal personhood. Wise, who is the president of Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is anticipating that the New York appeals court will recognize Tommy as having rights and state that he has been unlawfully kept a prisoner and should be released into a more appropriate environment, like a sanctuary for chimpanzees in Florida.

Wise argued that keeping his client in the shed, or cage, alone, is similar to keeping a human confined in solitary. The idea of isolating Tommy is thought to be unhealthy, and in a sanctuary, the chimp has the chance to live out the rest of his life as a chimpanzee and not a prisoner. Wise has spent most of his career attempting to bring human rights to animals, including freedom from captivity.

While the NhRP claims to be the only group that works towards gaining actual legal rights for nonhuman species, and this is possibly the first case of its kind, calling for human rights to be applied to a chimpanzee, it is far from moving primates towards the ape run planet from Hollywood. The lawsuit that Wise brought forth for Tommy has already been lost in the lower court system. Now Tommy is appealing. To be more accurate, the case is being appealed by Wise for Tommy. The appeal is based on a legal mechanism that has seen use historically in cases about the benefits for slaves. Wise feels Tommy should be seen and treated in this instance as a person.

The NhRP had cited specialists, like primate Jane Goodall,in a legal brief that argues for human rights to be extended to chimps. The 65-page brief states that chimpanzees are self-determined, autonomous, intelligent, self-aware and an emotionally complex group of individuals that are in a prison. The brief states that the argument from the NhRP shows the chimpanzees fit the legal requirements to be called a person, and thus should be entitled to legal rights.

While readers and followers of the case may feel this is the first step towards a real Planet of the Apes, it appears more to be a cry for the safety and well-being of animals. Tommy the chimpanzee may lead primates towards equality by winning his case calling for human rights, but in reality, all Wise and Tommy’s supporters want is for the safety of the chimp. Removing Tommy from his shack and releasing him into a sanctuary with other chimps would be a big step for other intelligent mammals like dolphins, orcas and elephants.

By Carl Auer

The Independent
National Public Radio
Photo by Patrick Bouquet – Flickr License

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