Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Chimpanzee Seeking Legal Personhood

The Nonhuman Rights Project filed suit in Fulton County Court in the state of New York today on behalf of Tommy, a chimpanzee, who is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used trailer lot in Gloversville.

This is the the first of three similar suits TNhRP are filing this week. The second will be filed on Tuesday in Niagara Falls on behalf of Kiko, a chimpanzee who is deaf and living in a private home. And the third will be filed on Thursday on behalf of Hercules and Leo, who are owned by a research center and are being used in locomotion experiments at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

The TNhRP argues that these suits are based on the case of “an American slave, James Somerset who had been taken to London by his owner, escaped, was recaptured and was being held in chains on a ship that was about to set sail for the slave markets of Jamaica.” With help from a group of abolitionist attorneys, Somerset’s godparents filed a writ of habeas corpus on Somerset’s behalf. The case challenged Somerset’s classification as a “legal thing” Famously, Lord Mansfield ruled that Somerset was not a piece of property, but instead a legal person, and so he set him free.

TNhRP claims this is a “clear case as to why these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned.” But James Somerset was a human being and not a chimpanzee.

The TNhRP lawsuits will ask the courts to grant the chimpanzees the right to bodily liberty and further ask for an order that the chimpanzees be moved to a sanctuary that’s part of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA).

However they note, “While our legal petitions and memoranda, along with affidavits from some of the world’s most respected scientists, lay out a clear case as to why these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned, we cannot, of course, predict how each of the judges in the three county courts will respond. Habeas corpus cases are usually heard soon after being filed since the person is being held captive. So it’s possible that the judges in any or all of these cases could move quickly to a hearing – or to deny the petition altogether. On the other hand, considering that this is new legal territory, they could slow the proceedings down. And each judge could rule in a different way.”

The legal footing of this case would seem a bit tenuous. The legal cause of action that is being used is a common law writ of habeas corpus, through which a person who is being held captive asks a judge to force his or her captors to show legal cause for imprisonment. It seems that a judge could simply reject this case as having no standing in court as there is a simple way for the court to rule that no person is imprisoned. And the courts are busy.

New York State already has animal cruelty laws that could be applied rather than habeus corpus. While the question of whether animals are objects or should be “subjects of rights” is an interesting academic question, it seems unlikely that this case will get very far as it is presented to a random judge. You can learn more details of the TNhRP argument here, but unless the judge hearing this case is already favorable to the TNhRP position it seems these cases are very likely dead in the water.

See also: “No, India did not just grant dolphins the status of humans


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