ByMark Newton, writer at
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

Don't worry, I don't think our chimp brethren are planning on taking over anytime soon, but an interesting legal case has come out of New York which could see one chimpanzee receiving "personhood".

Earlier this week, a New York court began proceedings to see whether Tommy, a chimp in his twenties, could be legally declared a "person". The case is being pursued by Steven Wise, a lawyer and founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), who claims Tommy's current conditions are tantamount to abuse and 'unlawful imprisonment'.

The Basis of the Claim

A family of chimps.
A family of chimps.

Wise claims that when he first found Tommy, a former circus performer, he was being kept in a tiny, unclean cage in what amounted to solitary confinement. Last year, Wise and the NhRP took it upon themselves to file a writ for habeas corpus - a legal precedent which forces any custodian to present proof of authority for detaining a person - on behalf of Tommy.

The case was originally rejected by the Supreme Court, however Wise appealed and now the case will go before five judges of the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division. Wise is expected to present scientific evidence which outlines the intelligence of chimps, while arguing that although Tommy is not human, he is still sentient enough to have certain rights. In particular, Wise is expected to argue Tommy was not arrested or presented to a court prior to his 'imprisonment'.

The NhRP has pursued similar cases in relation to great apes, dolphins and elephants, especially those in research facilities and private ownership. If successful, they plan to release Tommy into a ape sanctuary.

So Will Tommy Be Classed As A Human?

This isn't Tommy.
This isn't Tommy.

However, before we get carried away, we should figure out what legal "personhood" actually is. It does not classify him as a 'human' with human rights since these, as the name suggests, are strictly limited to humans. Personhood on the other hand is not synonymous with humans. In his testimony, Wise explained that a river, a religious holy book and a mosque had all previously been granted status as legal 'people'.

Practically, personhood would afford Tommy protection beyond current animal cruelty laws which do not usually distinguish between the intelligence or self-awareness of the animal in question. Furthermore, personhood would imbue Tommy with rights concerning his self-interest which would hold up in a court of law. This process is similar to a parent or legal guardian acting on behalf of a child or person with disabilities.

What Are Their Chances?

Tommy - potentially due to feces throwing concerns - will not be present in court.
Tommy - potentially due to feces throwing concerns - will not be present in court.

Tommy's owner, Patrick Lavery, previously attempted to outmaneuver the NhRP by moving Tommy out of New York, which would have prevented them from filing the appeal. However, the court blocked this move based on the grounds the plaintiff has a reasonable chance of success and that irrevocable harm could come to Tommy if he was moved. Given this, Wise and NhRP are apparently feeling rather optimistic about their chances.

There is certainly some precedent in Tommy's favor. Last year, India granted all dolphins the status of nonhuman persons - bolstering laws protecting dwindling populations in Asia.

Currently, the NhRP is said to have successfully completed their oral argument, with Wise concluding:

The uncontroverted facts demonstrate that chimpanzees possess the autonomy and self-determination that are supreme common law values that the writ of habeas corpus was constructed to protect. Both common law liberty and equality entitle him to common law habeas corpus personhood within the meaning of Article 70. This court should reverse and remand with an Order for the Supreme Court to issue the Order to Show Cause and proceed under Article 70.

At the time of the writing, the New York court has yet to announce a verdict, which is expected to come in 4-6 weeks. If they do fail, however, NhRP claims they will take the case to the NY Court of Appeals - the highest court in the land.


Should Tommy become a legally recognized 'person'?

Source: IFLScience


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