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Lawsuit Filed Today on Behalf of Chimpanzee Seeking Legal Personhood

By Michael Mountain


This morning at 10.00 E.T., the Nonhuman Rights Project filed suit in Fulton County Court in the state of New York on behalf of Tommy, a chimpanzee, who is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used trailer lot in Gloversville.

This is the first of three suits we are filing this week. The second will be filed on Tuesday in Niagara Falls on behalf of Kiko, a chimpanzee who is deaf and living in a private home. And the third will be filed on Thursday on behalf of Hercules and Leo, who are owned by a research center and are being used in locomotion experiments at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

The lawsuits ask the judge to grant the chimpanzees the right to bodily liberty and to order that they be moved to a sanctuary that’s part of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA), where they can live out their days with others of their kind in an environment as close to the wild as is possible in North America.

The legal team decided to do a clean sweep of all the chimpanzees we could find in the state of New York.

Rather than filing a single suit, the legal team decided to do a clean sweep of all the chimpanzees we could find in the state of New York. This was, in part, because we were increasingly worried about their health and welfare, in that two other chimpanzees who were originally going to be our first plaintiffs both died before we could bring the case.

Those two were Merlin and Reba, who were living in intolerable conditions at a roadside zoo, the Bailiwick Ranch and Discovery Zoo. The day our investigative team first visited this zoo, they found Merlin living alone, next to a bear, a tiger, and other animals pacing in their cages. When they asked about Merlin’s companion, Reba, they were told that she had recently died. Three months later, we visited the zoo a second time, only to discover that Merlin’s cage was empty. He, too, had died, two days earlier, of complications from an abscessed tooth. The owner of the zoo told us that Merlin had been punching himself in the face for several weeks before they had realized that something was the matter. He died in surgery.

kikoAnd then, just a few weeks ago, Kiko’s companion, Charlie, died of a heart condition that is common to chimpanzees in captivity. He was only about 28 years old.

When we visited Tommy, we found him in a small cage at the back of a dark shed at a trailer sales park that’s also home to a business called Santa’s Hitching Post that rents out reindeer for Christmas shows and other entertainment. Tommy was all by himself – his only company being a TV on a table on the opposite wall. Three years ago, to the best of our knowledge, there were four chimpanzees at Santa’s Hitching Post, and not long before that there were six.

With so many deaths having occurred so recently, we were now deeply concerned that Tommy, too, could die at any time before he could ever have a chance to walk on grass and climb in trees with others of his own kind. The same could also happen to Kiko, who has inner ear problems and suffers from motion-type sickness due to abuse early in his life. (We have no insight into the condition of Hercules and Leo since there is no way for us to gain access to the laboratory at Stony Brook.)

So, the conclusion of the legal team was to move as quickly as possible and to file suit on behalf of all the chimpanzees we could locate in the state. (There may, in fact, be more than these four, but no official record exists in New York State of chimpanzees who are being owned by humans.)

The Writ of Habeas Corpus

The legal cause of action that we are using is the common law writ of habeas corpus, through which somebody who is being held captive, for example in prison, seeks relief by having a judge call upon his captors to show cause as to why they have the right to hold him.

More specifically, our suits are based on a case that was fought in England in 1772, when an American slave, James Somerset, who had been taken to London by his owner, escaped, was recaptured and was being held in chains on a ship that was about to set sail for the slave markets of Jamaica. With help from a group of abolitionist attorneys, Somerset’s godparents filed a writ of habeas corpus on Somerset’s behalf in order to challenge Somerset’s classification as a legal thing, and the case went before the Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield. In what became one of the most important trials in Anglo-American history, Lord Mansfield ruled that Somerset was not a piece of property, but instead a legal person, and he set him free.

A clear case as to why these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned.

New York State recognizes the continuing viability of the common law writ of habeas corpus. New York case law permitted slaves to use the writ to challenge their status as legal things and establish their right to freedom. And the state also adopted Lord Mansfield’s celebrated habeas corpus ruling in the Somerset case.

While our legal petitions and memoranda, along with affidavits from some of the world’s most respected scientists, lay out a clear case as to why these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned, we cannot, of course, predict how each of the judges in the three county courts will respond. Habeas corpus cases are usually heard soon after being filed since the person is being held captive. So it’s possible that the judges in any or all of these cases could move quickly to a hearing – or to deny the petition altogether. On the other hand, considering that this is new legal territory, they could slow the proceedings down. And each judge could rule in a different way.

Whatever happens in the trial court, however, New York allows for an automatic appeal of an adverse habeas corpus decision. And either side can appeal the ruling. So our case will be heard, sooner or later, by New York’s intermediate appellate court, and quite possibly by New York’s highest court, the State Court of Appeals. And, from many points of view, that’s where we would like the case to be heard, since what happens at the appellate level has much wider reach than at the trial level.

Future suits

When, in 1772, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield ruled that James Somerset was a “legal person” who could not be held as another person’s property, this did not bring an end to slavery in the American colonies. Rather, it set the stage for numerous similar suits to be filed in courts across the newly formed states. In some cases, mainly in the north, judges ruled that the petitioners were “legal persons” with fundamental rights and set them free. In other cases, they did not.

Our goal is to breach the legal wall that separates all humans from all nonhuman animals.

Several states in the south, which considered slaves to be simply chattel, not legal persons, simply barred them altogether from using habeas corpus to challenge their enslavement. (Ultimately, it took almost a full century and then a civil war for the matter to be resolved.) And with rulings of that kind still in place in several states, the Nonhuman Rights Project would likely have a hard time demonstrating that any nonhuman animals are anything but chattel, too.

Our strategy, then, is to file as many suits as we have the funds to be able to pursue, and in the states where we have the best chance of winning them. We will also encourage other animal rights attorneys and legal experts to file similar cases, modeled on the ones that have been successful.

(In the State-by-State section of this website you can check out an interactive map that includes a brief synopsis of how previous rulings and subsequent laws may or may not favor our suits.)

Our goal is, very simply, to breach the legal wall that separates all humans from all nonhuman animals. Once this wall is breached, the first nonhuman animals on earth will gain legal “personhood” and finally get their day in court — a day they so clearly deserve.

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