A captive chimpanzee living in a “dank cement cage” has become the first animal to sue for legal rights under common law, demanding that a US court grants him his freedom.
In a lawsuit filed on his behalf by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), an advocacy group demanding legal rights for animals, Tommy, 26, demands release from his “illegal detention” on a private property in upstate New York and the right to live in a sanctuary.
He is one of four chimpanzees suing their owners in the state’s supreme court. Papers will be filed today and tomorrow for Kiko, 26, who was rescued from a life of abuse in the entertainment industry and now lives in a cage in Niagara Falls, and Hercules and Leo, research animals in a university laboratory.
The lawsuits say the animals should be recognised as “legal persons” on account of scientific evidence that they are a self-aware, autonomous species, and are therefore entitled to “bodily liberty”.
“We are asking the courts to recognise that these are cognitively complex, self-aware beings with a basic legal right not to be imprisoned,” said Steven Wise, founder and president of the NhRP, who has practised animal protection law for 30 years.
A lawsuit filed in 2011 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, on behalf of performing killer whales at SeaWorld marine parks, was thrown out of federal court in San Diego last year. The judge ruled that the orcas did not qualify for protection under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in 1865, because it applied only to humans.
But the chimpanzee case is based on common law, not the Constitution, throwing the case open to individual judicial interpretation as to whether the animals qualify for “personhood”.
Mr Wise said: “The term ‘legal person’ is not synonymous with just human beings. The judge will have to look into their own heart, their sense of justice, to determine these animals’ futures.”
The NhRP comprises legal experts and scientists including Jane Goodall, one of the world’s most respected primatologists and anthropologists.
Experts in Scotland and England have also proffered scientific testimony relating to the abilities of chimpanzees as creatures with complex cognitive abilities such as self-consciousness, awareness of the past and anticipation of the future.
They are the culmination of decades of work by Mr Wise, who plans to extend the litigation across the US on behalf of captive chimpanzees and, eventually, for great apes, elephants, whales and dolphins.
Tommy’s shed is on a piece of land where second-hand caravans are sold. Mr Wise said: “He’s sluggish, he looks depressed. It’s quite upsetting to see him”
The lawsuits demand Tommy, Hercules, Leo and Kiko be handed over to refuges accredited as members of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.
Last night, Patrick Lavery, Tommy’s owner, took issue with the NhRP’s description of the chimpanzee’s living conditions, saying that the animal lived happily in a large, bright, temperature-controlled environment with its own jungle play area, cable television, music, murals on the wall and enrichment activities.
The building was “ten times larger than the US Department of Agriculture requires”, he said, adding that he was in compliance with all federal requirements and that state authorities were so impressed with his facilities they had sent him primates to take care of after they were confiscated from other owners.
“I’m all for the happiness of chimps, that’s why I do this,” he said. “Before he came here, Tommy lived in a plywood box so small he couldn’t even walk around. I’ve tried for years to find a sanctuary, but they all say they’re full.”