In the last month we’ve posted a number of important updates regarding our lawsuits and advocacy on behalf of captive chimpanzees Tommy, Kiko, Hercules, and Leo. I talked to NhRP Executive Director Kevin Schneider to find out more about what’s happening and how you can help:
Lauren Choplin: As reported by The Dodo and the Daily Mail, Tommy appears to be missing from the Michigan roadside zoo to which, as records show, his “owner” “donated” him in September of last year. The zoo denies having any familiarity with Tommy and claims that any ambiguity as to his whereabouts is a publicity stunt for Unlocking the Cage. What do you, Steve, and the legal team think is going on? Have we learned anything new? What recourse does the NhRP have, and is there anything that advocates for Tommy’s freedom can do to help in the meantime?
Kevin Schneider: As recently as January, we believed Tommy was still in New York, and we had filed another habeas corpus petition on his behalf against Lavery and Circle L Trailer Sales (where he was caged in upstate New York). Only after that petition was denied did we get wind of a veterinary transfer record which appeared to show that Tommy had been “donated” to the DeYoung Family Zoo in Michigan in September of last year, shortly after the injunction keeping him in New York lapsed with the end of our first court appeal on his behalf. It is common for threatened/endangered animals like chimpanzees to be “donated” from one place to another to avoid the regulatory requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
The limited evidence we have suggests that Tommy was moved to Michigan and is being kept somewhere on the grounds of the DeYoung Zoo, but we have been unable to confirm that. In addition to the veterinary transfer record, we have obtained USDA inspection records of the DeYoung Zoo which show that it confined one chimpanzee on-site in July of last year, and then had two in November on the next inspection. Further, when a reporter from The Dodo asked the DeYoung Zoo about Tommy, the zoo claimed it had never heard of Tommy and that it was a publicity stunt for Unlocking the Cage, but when a reporter from the Daily Mail showed up a day or two later, the zoo responded to the same questions about Tommy with “no comment.”
Meanwhile, we got word via the Daily Mail from Lavery, Tommy’s former “owner,” that Tommy is indeed still alive, though he refused to say where he is being kept. If Tommy is alive, as we hope, it seems likely that Lavery, the DeYoung Zoo, or perhaps others are keeping Tommy hidden, likely for the purpose of avoiding further litigation.
We are currently exploring every means to verify Tommy’s whereabouts, including Freedom of Information Act requests to the federal agencies having oversight of endangered and captive wildlife. The NhRP is also exploring all legal options; unfortunately, Michigan is not a favorable setting for our habeas corpus litigation, for a number of reasons.
Please stay tuned as we gather more information. In the meantime, if you believe Tommy belongs in a sanctuary, not in a “family zoo,” we encourage you to be an ambassador for Tommy’s cause and call, write to, email, comment on the Facebook page of, and appear in person at the DeYoung Zoo to demand that they tell the world where Tommy is and, if it they have him, to send him immediately to Save the Chimps. Also please jump on social media to raise awareness of his situation using the tag #WhereIsTommy.
LC: We announced this past week that the legal team filed a motion to “appeal as of right” in Kiko’s case, after the Clerk of the Court with New York’s First Appellate Division in Manhattan said we did not have a right to appeal. Can you explain what it means to appeal “as of right” and why it’s important?
KS: When you bring a lawsuit and you lose on some ground in the trial court, you can usually bring an appeal to challenge that ruling. However, in New York you generally cannot appeal from a denial of an “order to show cause.” In our cases, we bring habeas corpus petitions in the form of an “order to show cause,” since we do not actually want our nonhuman plaintiffs to be brought into the courtroom, as would be the case with a true “habeas corpus” petition. Kiko’s order to show cause was denied in January, and it appears that when we filed our appeal from that denial, a clerk at the First Appellate Department in Manhattan court saw “order to show cause” and denied our right to appeal on that basis.
HOWEVER (we use this word a lot in the law), there is also a very clear exception to the above rule, which states that a denial of an order to show cause is appealable if the case was brought under the habeas corpus statute (Article 70). This is exactly what we did in Kiko’s case, and as we laid out to the court in our motion to appeal as of right, we believe that the law is firmly on our side and that we are entitled to an appeal. The court has told us to expect a ruling on the motion in 4-6 weeks.
LC: The court also, in response to a second request on our part, granted the NhRP permission to file an “oversized brief.” What is that, and why was it necessary?
KS: We have a lot to say! Most courts, including the appeals courts of New York, impose strict page limits on appellate briefs (for good reason: these courts hear a lot of cases and can only read so much material). Our cases are unprecedented and raise many novel arguments, and so we feel a need to educate judges as much as possible, which sometimes means we need more pages to work with. In Kiko’s case, we initially attempted to submit a brief that was double the allowed page limit, in an attempt to bring before the appellate judges as much of the science and the law as possible. That first request was denied, and so we went back and cut as much as we could while still maintaining those legal arguments and expert opinions that we believe are critical to making the case for nonhuman personhood. We also needed as much room as possible to argue against the “duties and responsibilities” standard which was imposed by the Third Appellate Department in Tommy’s case, and which has haunted us ever since in our refiled cases on behalf of Kiko and Tommy (Hercules and Leo, of course, had already been moved out of New York as of December and presumably beyond the jurisdiction of the New York courts).
LC: May 27th was the one-year anniversary of the hearing in which Justice Jaffe ordered Stony Brook University to appear in New York County Supreme Court in Manhattan to give a legally sufficient reason for detaining Hercules and Leo pursuant to our petition for a writ of habeas corpus. At the beginning of May, we learned that the New Iberia Research Center, Hercules’ and Leo’s “owner,” had finally made a decision in the best interests of all 220 chimpanzees held in captivity at their facility: they would send all of them to the new Project Chimps sanctuary being set up in Georgia. What are your thoughts on the progress made this past year, both for Hercules and Leo specifically and in support of the nonhuman rights cause? How would you describe the trajectory (legal and otherwise) that led to NIRC’s announcement? Finally, what kind of support do we anticipate needing from our supporters to help ensure that Hercules and Leo find sanctuary as soon as possible?
KS: While NIRC has publicly denied that activist pressure had anything to do with their decision to send their 220 chimpanzees to sanctuary, we know that this move was the result of decades of pressure from numerous animal protection groups, including the NhRP. For several years, we have seen a steady acceptance of the idea of nonhuman rights. With the release of Unlocking the Cage, we are seeing even more attention and sympathy for the idea, all over the world.
We also know that—thanks to our supporters—the NhRP helped shine a light on Hercules’ and Leo’s plight. Many supporters followed in the path of Dr. Jane Goodall and have signed petitions, written letters, and made phone calls to the powers-that-be in Louisiana, asking them to do the right thing and send Hercules and Leo to sanctuary. Nonhuman rights advocates helped put Hercules and Leo on the map, and made it clear to their “owners” that many people are concerned about them.
We are very glad that NIRC finally saw the light and agreed to release all its chimpanzees, and this is in line with recent announcements from Ringling and SeaWorld as they respond to public pressure. We are however concerned about the timeline; NIRC says it could take 3-5 years before all 220 NIRC chimpanzees are moved to sanctuary, and it could easily take longer than that.
That is why we are continuing to demand that Hercules and Leo, among other chimpanzees, be sent immediately to Save The Chimps sanctuary, which remains ready and willing to accept them for life. We are asking supporters to sign our petition (if you have not yet done so) and continue calling and writing to the University of Louisiana System President, the Governor, and the President of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (where NIRC is located) and ask them to send Hercules and Leo to Save the Chimps now.
It is true that Hercules and Leo may never be declared “legal persons” by a court or be given any formal rights. However, the goal of getting these two self-aware, autonomous, emotionally and cognitively complex nonhuman individuals to sanctuary remains the same. Furthermore, as our work continues, we can look forward to a day when all chimpanzees in the country are granted legal personhood and rights, whether that saves them from a bad condition or solidifies their existing sanctuary space.
Thank you, Kevin! As Kevin says, stay tuned for additional updates on all our clients. In the meantime, please feel free to read and download all NhRP legal documents on our Court Cases page.