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.