Should Chimpanzees Have Human Rights?

Chimpanzees and humans share about 99 percent of the same DNA. Should chimps also have some of the same rights as humans? This week an animal rights group, the Nonhuman Rights Project, filed the first of several lawsuits arguing just that.

The subject of the lawsuit is Tommy, a captive chimpanzee that lives in a shed behind a used-car lot in Gloversville, N.Y. The lawsuit, filed Dec. 2 in New York State Supreme Court, demands that Tommy be recognized as a legal person who has a right to liberty. In this case, “liberty” means Tommy and other animals like him being removed from owners and relocated to an animal sanctuary “where they can live out the rest of their days with others of their kind in an environment as close to the wild as is possible in North America,” according to a press release.

The Nonhuman Rights Project is using the common law legal precedent of habeas corpus, which has been used for centuries to seek relief for people who have been held captive against their will. The argument is similar to that used to remove people from slavery. “This petition,” the lawsuit reads, “asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.”

The organization also plans to file similar lawsuits in Niagara Falls on Dec. 3 and Long Island on Dec. 4. Those lawsuits will seek to free a primate that is living in a private home and two that are being used for locomotion experiments at Stony Brook University. They had intended to file lawsuits to protect two additional chimpanzees that were living in a roadside zoo, but the animals died before that goal could be accomplished.

According to the Nonhuman Rights Project, there used to be six chimpanzees at the Gloversville business, which also rents reindeer for Christmas shows. Tommy is the only one still living, and the organization writes “we are now deeply concerned that Tommy, too, could die at any time before he could ever had a chance to walk on grass and climb in trees with others of his own kind.”

Patrick Lavery, the owner of the facility, told the New York Times that Tommy lives in a large cage with lots of toys, and that it is much better than the home where the chimp previously lived. “If they were to see where this chimp lived for the first 30 years of his life, they would jump up and down for joy about where he is now,” he said. Lavery said he complies with all regulations regarding owning the chimpanzee and has been trying to find a sanctuary to take him. He said the facilities he has approached so far are all full and don’t have room for Tommy.

The Nonhuman Rights Project has set up trusts for the four animals, which the organization says is enough to give them human legal rights.


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Photo: Tim Parkinson/Flickr

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Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla3 months ago


Amy L.
Amy L.about a year ago

This shouldn't even be a question. Animals as humans are born with fundamental rights and deserve to live unencumbered by humans. We know what hell and disaster humans have pummeled animals with. We have been their greatest source of scourge and now we owe it to them to help them, save them and then leave them alone so they can thrive. “This petition,” the lawsuit reads, “asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.”

I love that! This needs to be world wide and expanded to help the poor miserable Moon Bear's in Asia along with Tigers et al and the rights of elephants, and rhinos to survive. It should cover all of the animal kingdom!

Loretta Pienaar
Loretta Pienaarabout a year ago

Yes, Jessica S!! So right and Shirley P, we can be sure that the day of reckoning WILL come and I, for one, thank God for that. Why heaven's name people want to keep free creatures captive beats me.

Jessica Story
Jessica Storyabout a year ago

Of course they should have rights, whatever you want to name it, I think all animals should have rights, i'm sick of humans thinking they can do what the hell they want to, to animals. Our nearest relatives should never have been taken from the wild, bred, used in experiments or kept confined as 'pets' or as breeding couples to produce more pets, in the first place. All captive primates should be released into sanctuaries & governments should set aside money to open & expand sanctuaries. It is time humans started to right the wrongs it has perpetuated against animals.

Shirley P.
Shirley P.about a year ago

The Non-Human Rights Project is correct in their thoughts about full rights for non humans. I don't really care if it is called Human Rights or something else, like Full Rights for Animals BECAUSE they are living beings, and do resemble and have any number of human connections and behavior. They deserve their Full Rights just for that, being created and living on planet earth. They deserve compassion, value, respect for their own abilities, and all the various ways God created them. The abuse they suffer is downright out of Hell!!!! I so hope God will remember when the humans stand before him for their judgement for their lives' evil activities.

Fi T.
Fi T.about a year ago

The point isn't whether they should have human right but if their right of survival is respected

Carrie-Anne Brown
Carrie-Anne Brownabout a year ago

thanks for sharing

Sabine H.
Sabine H.1 years ago

living beeing rights... human and animals... all the same!

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson1 years ago

One can hope

Charlene Rush
Charlene Rush1 years ago

I believe the question should be, 'Why haven't we already, given certain rights to chimpanzees and all of our other animal friends?', if we are truly humans with morals and a heart.
Our behavior toward animals must be viewed as, far less than stellar, by many who consider themselves god-fearing. I shutter to think of the torture animals suffer, when in the hands of those who have, themselves, been abused.
MISERY LOVES COMPANY, comes to mind.