7 min read

New York Denies Tommy The Chimp His Freedom In Historic Fight

<p><a class="checked-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/gemmastiles/8714008456/in/photolist-ibMPBd-8EbAnP-2aNoxF-bXqG3u-8w3ZMC-aEpkpa-w8oMw-7UHWGR-oWJxMx-kFBqi6-3akF4o-pteuBN-eh2z87-eiu8VH-3bm8iT-bNatp-7UHYD4-29zXHS-5YzifQ-aEsaCb-izL1zF-ghYNFS-8RyG4Y-8PxP51-ghZb4w-dy9Ao2-fGFd9m-GzUWU-ghZDuW-ghZEWT-aEtau9-ncRHEx-8PAyrN-3NYSDM-ngiXgA-5SbdsU-guHzmq-68WqJd-d9Xmfg-hP36o4-bKDKWx-duqWWS-68WqB3-m6tU2g-dQRnTS-8AwtWe-9Xm3FC-aEtaNo-w8p72-eco6aa">Gemma Stiles/Flickr</a></p>

A New York court on Thursday denied an appeal that sought "legal personhood" for a captive chimpanzee named Tommy, meaning that he'll remain imprisoned in his cage for the time being.

The New York Supreme Court's Appellate Division heard an appeal for Tommy's case back in October. Tommy was represented by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NRP), an organization that has been fighting for legal personhood on behalf of Tommy and three other chimps.

The lawyers argued that because chimpanzees are emotionally complex, socially intelligent and highly self-aware, they should legally be defined as "nonhuman persons." This is not to say that they would be afforded all the rights that people have, but that they would have the right to bodily liberty and freedom from imprisonment. For this to apply, the lawyers hoped to invoke habeas corpus, a writ traditionally used to prevent people from being wrongfully imprisoned.

But the court ruled this week that the writ would not apply in this case, saying that it had not ever been sought before on behalf of a chimpanzee.

The decision reads:

Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions. In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights - such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus - that have been afforded to human beings.

NRP told The Dodo in a statement that common law is meant to change as new scientific discoveries are made, and as public knowledge changes.

"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,'" said Natalie Prosin, the organization's executive director. "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."

Tommy, who is 27 years old, was raised among other chimps in a troupe of performing animals in Gloversville, N.Y. Now, he lives alone in a cage while lawyers battle over his fate. The Nonhuman Rights Project is already pursuing an appeal to the New York Court of Appeals.

The North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance has repeatedly offered to retire Tommy to a sanctuary where he can live in a more natural setting with other chimps, but his owner, who claims that Tommy is well-cared for, refuses.

Tommy isn't the only chimp whose fate is in the hands of the courts. On Wednesday, a panel of five appellate court judges heard arguments from the Nonhuman Rights Project on behalf of Kiko, a 26-year-old chimp being held in chains as a pet on a private property in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Just over a year ago, a judge denied the petition for habeas corpus on behalf of Kiko, saying he didn't want to be the first "to make that leap of faith." A third lawsuit was filed on behalf of two research chimps named Hercules and Leo, who are being used at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Chimps aren't the only animals who may be eligible for personhood, Prosin told The Dodo in October. She said that the group will expand its litigation to members of other species as well.

"We're looking at species that we can prove in a court of law are determined emotionally and cognitively complex to qualify for personhood," said Prosin. "We believe that we have evidence for this level of cognitive complexity for all species of great apes, African and Asian elephants and some cetaceans like orca whales and dolphins."