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Why Rights? Tommy and Kiko Appellate Hearing

By Lauren Choplin

Why rights?

This question was rightfully at the forefront of Tommy and Kiko’s appellate hearing on March 16th and the media coverage surrounding it.

Photo: Lukas Maverick Greyson

As many of you know, the hearing was a long time coming. Uncertainties as to Tommy’s whereabouts delayed for months the filing of his appeal, while the NhRP legal team fought for almost a year in the First Judicial Department to affirm our absolute right to appeal in Kiko’s case.

That the Court decided to hear oral arguments in both cases on the same day is ironic, perhaps, considering Tommy and Kiko are each held in captivity alone, with no knowledge of the other or contact with other chimpanzees.

In the week leading up to the hearing, numerous media outlets reported on the NhRP’s litigation with all the seriousness our clients’ situations are due. For example, The Washington Post’s Animalia blog highlighted the “revolutionary changes” the NhRP’s work could bring and detailed the scientific evidence we brought before the Court to repudiate the Third Judicial Department’s erroneous assumption (one of several) that chimpanzees cannot bear duties and responsibilities.

The New York Law Journal took a look back at the history of how we arrived at this hearing and why NhRP President Steven M. Wise decided to argue for nonhuman animals’ personhood and rights in the first place: “They were essentially being treated as slaves and I said ‘It looks like they need a lawyer.’”

In a video interview with Salon, Steve emphasized the links between human rights and nonhuman rights, human suffering and nonhuman animal suffering. Autonomous beings like our clients suffer in solitary confinement just as humans do, he said. How Tommy and Kiko are being treated in captivity is beside the point because, as courts must recognize, holding them in captivity is in itself a violation of their right to bodily liberty.

The Wall Street Journal, detailing their respective cases, referred to Tommy and Kiko as “unlikely plaintiffs.” This is all too true. Even in 2017, nonhuman animals seldom get their day in court.

Gizmodo got to the heart of why, whether we’re talking about humans, nonhuman animals, or the environment, recognition of rights is important and necessary, especially in this threatening political climate where we see how easy it is to toss animal and environmental protection laws by the wayside: “Rights are more difficult to erode.”

An article in the Associated Press brought to the fore what is, from our point of view, the utter absurdity behind justifications for Tommy and Kiko remaining in captivity. Kiko “could die without his family to give him the special care he needs, and to bring him into the house to play,” Carmen Presti said (apparently unaware that accredited sanctuaries offer medical care and that a cage in a house in a residential area of upstate New York is far from a suitable environment for a chimpanzee).

In an op-ed published by the New York Daily News on the day of the hearing, Steve drove home the point that “we are arguing that courts must recognize [Tommy and Kiko] as ‘persons’ with the capacity for fundamental rights appropriate to the kind of beings that evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience unequivocally tell us they are.”

As for the hearing itself, overall we’re pleased the First Judicial Department asked so many forceful questions, as we detail in our media release, allowing us to address the erroneousness of the Third Judicial Department’s Oct. 2015 ruling, including the dangerous precedent set by linking rights to duties and responsibilities, as NBC News focused on in its coverage.

We’ll know in five to eight weeks whether the First Judicial Department will be first US court to change Tommy and Kiko’s legal status on the basis of their proven autonomy (a supreme common law value). Either way, the fight for nonhuman rights will be far from over.

For this reason and so many others, it was amazing (but not surprising) to see how many people took the time to show their support for Tommy and Kiko’s bid for freedom, both online and in person at the hearing. Clearly, “why rights?” is a question you don’t hesitate to answer with compassion and confidence.

Photo: Lukas Maverick Greyson

To view our complete photo album from the day of the hearing, visit our Facebook page.

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