New York Court Denies Tommy the Chimp His Freedom — For Now

A New York court has denied an appeal in a groundbreaking lawsuit seeking legal personhood for a 27-year-old chimpanzee named Tommy who is being kept in questionable conditions in the state, but the fight for his freedom and rights for other animals like him isn’t over.

Tommy’s guardian, Patrick Lavery, has previously argued that Tommy is happy, that he likes being alone, that he has enrichment (a stereo and television with cable) and that he’s being kept in conditions that comply with state and federal laws.

But for many, after a quick look at Tommy alone in his cage, something just doesn’t sit right. His living quarters were previously described for Care2 by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) as being a “small cage in a dark barn at a used-trailer lot. Tommy was living in ‘dungeon like’ conditions — solitary confinement, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Unfortunately for Tommy, even though he may be a living, breathing, intelligent creature capable of complex emotions and desires that mirror our own, the way the law sees him he may as well be a toaster oven. Tommy is just someone’s property.

Last year, the NhRP took action to break down the legal wall that separates human and non-human animals when it filed three lawsuits under the writ of habeus corpus – which is used to challenge imprisonment – on behalf of Tommy and three other chimpanzees in New York, seeking to have them moved to sanctuaries.

In the cases for the chimpanzees, the NhRP argued, not that they are human, but that they are entitled to live with basic rights to bodily liberty and bodily integrity – that they should have the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned based on their intelligence, self-awareness and autonomy.

The case for Tommy was denied the first time around, which the NhRP said at the time was not surprising because changing common law is typically left up to the higher courts. In October the group appealed to the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division in the hope it would make such a change.

Unfortunately, the court ruled that habeus corpus would not apply mainly because no one has ever tried to use it on a non-human animal before, but the NhRP countered that isn’t a sufficient reason to deny it now, stating:

The Court ignores the fact that the common law is supposed to change in light of new scientific discoveries, changing experiences, and changing ideas of what is right or wrong. The Court recognizes that the Nonhuman Rights Project’s affidavits reveal “that chimpanzees exhibit highly complex cognitive functions-such as autonomy, self-awareness, and self-determination, among others—similar to those possessed by human beings.” It is time for the common law to recognize that these facts are sufficient to establish personhood for the purpose of a writ of habeas corpus.

The court also stated that in order for Tommy to have legal rights, he must have responsibilities, but that ruling is counter to a previous one and the NhRP argues that the court erred in this conclusion, too. The group isn’t seeking to grant rights that would make Tommy human, but rights that would offer him an opportunity to live in an environment where his needs would come first and be met to the best of our ability at this point in his life.

While Tommy’s case was denied again, the NhRP is already working on another appeal for him that will go before the state’s highest court and it also just filed an appeal in its case involving Kiko, a former victim of the entertainment industry. A decision involving Kiko isn’t expected until early next year.

Whatever the outcome for the chimpanzees in these cases, the work of the NhRP and animal advocates who support legal rights for animals is continuing to gain momentum and grow the conversation about the way we see non-human animals and what’s acceptable when it comes to how we keep, use and treat them.

At the end of November, the NhRP reported that it’s collaborating with lawyers in five more countries – – Switzerland, the U.K., Argentina, Spain and Portugal – who are also interested in working to achieve personhood for non-human animals and hopes to add more.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim V3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Marilyn M.
Marilyn M4 years ago

Thank you.

Georgina Elizab McAlliste
.4 years ago

Let's put Mr Patrick Lavery in a small cage in a dark barn with cable tv, and see how he reacts to being caged up!!

Angev GERIDONI4 years ago

PETROPOLIS : now you can help the sanctuary that is home to farm animals, victims of exploitation, of abuse, and all kinds of cruelty. Some comes from Pétropolis some from other places around this city. Today there are 150 lucky animals, please give, for keeping them and to rescue other ones : ♥ Fairy sanctuary - or - ♥ Doe

Thank you for sharing

Angev GERIDONI4 years ago

For the horses and goats from PETROPOLIS thanks you to sign the petitions :
Care 2 - and - ♞
To see more : misfed. - Rip - Rip - misfed - Rip


Angev GERIDONI4 years ago

ANOTHER THREAT on Petropolis animals, they need again your help
to stop a project of a vivarium for laboratory. You know what's
happened to the horses in the streets outside, imagine for pets in cages. Please sign the new petition here :
STOP Petropolis vivarium project

Angev GERIDONI4 years ago

✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ STOP THE ZOO - LET THEM FREE ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿

Friedrich Kling Hauss
Frank Kling4 years ago

Kamia, explain to me why non-human animals and the human animal should not be equated. The belief system that human's are superior to all other life and might makes right explain why the global ecosystem is on the verge of collapse. 50 billion animals are murdered every year to satisfy every possible human pleasure, and as a consequence we are responsible for inflicting a genocide of unprecedented proportions on the living Earth.

Kamia T.
Kamia T4 years ago

Petition signed, but I can understand the court not wanting to equate a human and an animal -- it would cause an outpouring of interestingly problematic legal questions. If I had been the legal team, I think I would have challenged the definition of acceptable living conditions for this animal, since it is a social one. That would have been less difficult for the court to approve, methinks.

Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper4 years ago