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Our First Plaintiff

By Natalie Prosin


Our plaintiff did not walk into our office; he couldn’t. He is being held captive in solitary confinement in a small, dank, cement cage in a dark shed in temperatures 40 degrees below his native land. Our plaintiff is a chimpanzee named Tommy. Day in and day out Tommy lives a life of isolation in the back of a used trailer lot in Gloversville, New York, far from Africa where he has never been and will never get to go. He is unable to do the things that are natural to chimpanzees. He cannot build a nest, socialize with others of his own kind, or forage for food.

It isn’t difficult to recognize from a moral or philosophical perspective that Tommy has an interest in not being confined under these conditions. But one’s awareness that Tommy’s situation is not ‘right’ is in another sense meaningless because Tommy, like any number of cognitively complex, self-aware nonhuman animals, is not a being whom the law recognizes as having any legal rights. What Tommy’s ‘owners’ are doing has been considered legal since the advent of our legal system and well before. Over the years, thousands of lawsuits have been filed trying to protect the interests of animals, but the fundamental paradox plaguing all of these cases is that the legal system does not recognize that a nonhuman animal has the capacity for any legal right at all. Animal welfare laws are without teeth when it comes to Tommy’s exploitation because our legal system sees Tommy only as an object of ownership; a mere piece of property that can be bought and sold, used for almost any purpose and, to a very large extent, treated in any way that his ‘owner’ sees fit. Legally speaking, Tommy is less than an animal; he is a thing, with about as much claim to justice as an inanimate object.

We are arguing that Tommy is being detained in violation of his right to bodily liberty and that he should be released to a reputable sanctuary.

This week the Nonhuman Rights Project has filed a series of lawsuits in the New York Supreme Court arguing that Tommy is not a piece of property but rather a legal person with the legal right to bodily liberty. This right protects the most fundamental interests of a being. Legal personhood determines who or what counts in the eyes of the law. If you are not a legal person, then you are considered, legally, a thing. Things exist for persons, while persons exist for themselves. Legal things are invisible to civil law judges.

We are arguing that Tommy is being detained in violation of his right to bodily liberty and that he should be released to a reputable sanctuary. There he will live out his days with many other chimpanzees in an environment as close to the wild as possible. We have filed additional lawsuits on behalf of all the known chimpanzees in New York State, including Kiko, a chimpanzee who was exploited for years in the entertainment business, and Hercules and Leo, two chimpanzees being used in experiments at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. We had intended to include three other chimpanzees in our lawsuits, but within the past eight months they all died before we could give them their day in court.

Courts recognize that a sufficient, though not necessary condition of a fundamental right like bodily liberty is the possession of certain qualities. With over half a century of scientific evidence to support our legal arguments, and affidavits submitted in support of our lawsuit by an international group of the world’s most respected primatologists, our lawsuits set out to establish that chimpanzees possess such complex cognitive abilities as autonomy, self-determination, self-consciousness, awareness of the past, anticipation of the future, and the ability to make choices; that they display complex emotions like empathy; and that they construct diverse cultures. The possession of these characteristics is sufficient to establish personhood and the consequential fundamental right to bodily liberty.

Our arguments establish that extending legal personhood to all the known chimpanzees in New York is strongly supported by law, science and history. In fact New York law does not limit legal personhood to just human beings. Courts have also routinely extended rights to non-human entities such as corporations.

It is important to note that we are not trying to give human rights to chimpanzees. Human rights belong to human beings. We are advocating for chimpanzee rights for chimpanzees, beginning with the fundamental legal right to bodily liberty.

There is a problem with the traditional image of Lady Justice, too. Her justice is ideally blind, dispensed without regard to the classes of persons who appear before her. At the same time, certain beings remain and have always been invisible to the institutions of justice. The Nonhuman Rights Project is embarking on a series of lawsuits that will, for the first time, allow the legal system to acknowledge that at least some nonhuman animals are more than pieces of property. We are hopeful that Lady Justice will soon be able to recognize Tommy for who and what he is.


Natalie Prosin is Executive Director of the Nonhuman Rights Project.

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