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Should Chimpanzees Be Awarded The Same Rights As Humans? A New York Court Is Being Asked To Decide
December 3, 2013
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Tommy, the subject of the lawsuit (Photo: Nonhuman Rights Project)

Yesterday morning, an animal rights group filed a landmark lawsuit in New York's Fulton County Court on behalf of Tommy, a chimpanzee who the group says "is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used-trailer lot." They weren't merely hoping the court would look after Tommy's welfare — they were trying to have the court recognize the animal's rights as a person under the law.

The suit, and two more like it being filed this week, are the result of a years-long strategy by the Nonhuman Rights Project to find a state whose laws might be receptive to what's called a habeas corpus challenge, reports the New York Times. Habeas corpus is a centuries-old concept from English common law that recognizes the right to challenge an unlawful detention.

“This petition asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned,” the group writes in their court filing. The group is hoping that Tommy and three other chimpanzees will be placed in a sanctuary.

Tommy's current owner, Patrick C. Lavery, told the Times that he had rescued the animal from its previous home, where it was being badly treated. “If they were to see where this chimp lived for the first 30 years of his life, they would jump up and down for joy about where he is now," he said.

As part of its legal strategy, the Nonhuman Rights Project first set up a trust for the four chimpanzees, which project leader Steven M. Wise argues establishes them as persons under New York state law.

David Favre, an expert on animal law at Michigan State University, told Reuters that the suit is the first attempt to establish legal rights for the animals using a habeas corpus writ. "The focus here is whether a chimpanzee is a 'person' that has access to these laws," he said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. National Institutes of Health announced it was reducing the scale of its use of chimpanzees in biomedical research. In 2008, the Spanish Parliament voted to grant the animals the right to life and freedom. According to the NGO Release and Restitution for Chimpanzees, Canada does not have a formal ban on experimentation on great apes, although investigations suggest that no chimpanzees are currently being used in research.

Via New York Times

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