Tommy the Chimp is No Chump

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Chimpanzee, by Flickr user William Warby, licensed by Creative Commons.

Quit Monkeying Around

A unique case is taking place in the court of  appeals in New York, it is about whether chimpanzees are entitled to “legal personhood”. The defendant is 26-year-old Tommy, who is owned by a human and lives alone in what is described as a “dark, dank shed” in upstate New York. Tommy currently lives alone in a cage in a warehouse in Gloversville, New York. In December, Steven Wise, founder and president of  the Nonhuman Rights Project, filed writs of habeas corpus on behalf of four chimpanzees he believed were wrongfully detained. Wise compared chimps to human children when Presiding Justice Karen Peters asked him about how novel his theory really was. “Hey, I’m no animal rights freak, but if we’re extending the legal fiction of corporate personhood to include religious rights, we should at least give a creature with a 99 percent DNA match the right to not be locked in a shed. The standard really isn’t that onerous. If the courts fails to get this done  and based on the oral argument that seems likely  legislatures should take action to protect these creatures. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for that either.”

Attorney Steven Wise states Chimpanzees are autonomous, self-determining beings. Why shouldn’t they be legal persons?” “How is it that we  can ignore the autonomy of a nonhuman, while making autonomy to be a supreme value of a human being?” Wise says that Tommy has been unlawfully imprisoned and should be released to a sanctuary in Florida. “The next argument could be that Tommy also has the right to bodily integrity, so he couldn’t be used in biomedical research.” The Boston lawyer speaking for Tommy is using a legal process usually filed on behalf of people, traditionally prison inmates, who claim they have been unlawfully imprisoned.

Along with the briefs were affidavits from nine leading primatologists. According to scientific evidence, chimpanzees are deeply self-aware and self-determined, capable not only of pleasure and pain, but of anticipating the future, remembering the past and making conscious choices about their lives. If Tommy is a legal person, said Wise, then keeping a person in solitary confinement is unlawful detention. Justice Peters noted that if a writ of habeas corpus is indeed granted, Tommy will not actually go free. He will be moved to a chimpanzee sanctuary: from one cage to another. “How do we define cage?” she asked.