Certainly, over the years, there have been efforts, both through legislation and in the courts, to protect the interests of animals. But animal welfare laws are largely without teeth because our legal system sees animals like Tommy as mere pieces of property that can be bought and sold, used for almost any purpose, and treated in almost any way that their owner sees fit.
Right now, three lawsuits are working their way through the courts in New York State on behalf of Tommy and three other chimpanzees: Kiko, a chimpanzee who was exploited for years in the entertainment business, and Hercules and Leo, two chimpanzees who are being used in experiments at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. We had intended to include three other chimpanzees in our lawsuits, but they all died before we could give them their day in court.
We argue that Tommy, Kiko, Hercules and Leo are not pieces of property but are "legal persons" with the basic right to bodily liberty. And just to be clear, "legal person" is not the same thing as a human being. In law, a legal person is a term that refers to any entity capable of having legal rights. Corporations, religious idols, ships, and even a river, for example, have been recognized in common law courts around the world as legal persons that have certain kinds of rights. That doesn't mean they have human rights. And we're not trying to give human rights to chimpanzees, either. Human rights belong to human beings. Chimpanzee rights begin with the fundamental legal right to bodily liberty.
Once the right to bodily liberty is recognized, these four plaintiffs can be released to reputable sanctuaries where they can live out their days with other chimpanzees in an environment as close to the wild as possible.