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Press release

Lawsuit Seeks Right to Liberty for Chimpanzees in Michigan Roadside Zoo

~ Supported by chimpanzee experts, the lawsuit is the first filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project in the state ~

Dec. 7, 2023—Menominee, MI—The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has filed a habeas corpus complaint in the 41st Circuit Court in Menominee County, demanding the right to liberty of seven chimpanzees held captive in the DeYoung Family Zoo and their immediate release to a chimpanzee sanctuary.

Referred to as “the DeYoung Prisoners” in the NhRP’s complaint, the chimpanzees at the roadside zoo previously included Tommy–the NhRP’s client in the first habeas corpus lawsuit brought on behalf of a nonhuman animal in the US and the subject of the 2016 documentary Unlocking the Cage. According to public records, Tommy was moved from a cage on a used trailer lot in New York to the DeYoung Family Zoo in 2015. The NhRP announced earlier this week that public records it just received appear to indicate that Tommy died in February of 2022, “curled up in his sleeping spot” inside a building at the DeYoung Family Zoo. 

“Humans took everything away from Tommy, first and foremost his freedom, and he suffered because of it his whole life,” said Elizabeth Stein, the NhRP’s Litigation Director. “We look forward to fighting for the chimpanzees who remain in the DeYoung Family Zoo so they can live their lives as chimpanzees.”

The first litigation of its kind in Michigan, the NhRP’s complaint is supported by affidavits and declarations submitted by renowned experts in chimpanzee behavior and cognition, including Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Tetsuro Matsuzawa, Dr. Christophe Boesch, Dr. Jennifer Fugate, Dr. William McGrew, and Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold.

“Our knowledge of chimpanzees compels the conclusion that the imprisonment of the DeYoung Prisoners is unjust,” the NhRP writes in its complaint. “These are autonomous, self-determining beings forced to live in a wholly unnatural environment, one that deprives them of the ability to meaningfully exercise their autonomy. As a consequence of this unjust deprivation, they are suffering physically and psychologically.”  

USDA inspection reports suggest that the chimpanzees at the DeYoung Family Zoo are kept in an environment that is “extremely harmful to their physical and psychological well-being,” as stated in Dr. Jensvold’s affidavit. For example, Louie has been housed for at least half of his life without the company of other chimpanzees, and all the chimpanzees are housed indoors for the duration of the winter. In an affidavit submitted with the complaint, NhRP attorney Jake Davis describes an August 2023 visit to the zoo in which he observed several chimpanzees inside an enclosure. He heard at least one chimpanzee screaming and banging on the walls. At one point, a chimpanzee went to an enclosed walkway and began rocking back and forth for over a minute and appeared to be trying to open an access point to a second enclosure, Davis writes. Another chimpanzee grabbed a chain-link fence and shook it violently.

The NhRP’s complaint requests the chimpanzees’ release to a chimpanzee sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries “so that they can exercise their autonomy and have their complex needs met.” 

The NhRP is initially asking for the issuance of the order to show cause so that the case can proceed and be heard on the merits. If the 41st Circuit Court issues the order, it will join a growing body of judges who have taken seriously the notion that the protections of habeas corpus can extend to nonhuman animals. These include former New York Court of Appeals Judge Eugene M. Fahey, who criticized Tommy’s rightlessness and imprisonment in a groundbreaking 2018 concurring opinion

“To treat a chimpanzee as if he or she had no right to liberty protected by habeas corpus,” Judge Fahey wrote, “is to regard the chimpanzee as entirely lacking independent worth, as a mere resource for human use, a thing the value of which consists exclusively in its usefulness to others. Instead, we should consider whether a chimpanzee is an individual with inherent value who has the right to be treated with respect.” Judge Fahey concluded his opinion by stating, “there is no doubt that [a chimpanzee] is not merely a thing.”

“Animal welfare failed Tommy,” said Stein. “It’s failing all the chimpanzees at the DeYoung Family Zoo,  and the time has come to recognize them as rights-holders.”

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