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The Need for Chimpanzee Rights

By Courtney Fern

“If only we could march under one banner, working for apes and humans alike, and with our combined intelligence and compassion—our humanity—strive to make ever more people understand. To understand that we should respect the individual ape just as we should respect the individual human; that we should recognise the right of each ape to live a life unmolested by humans, if necessary helped by humans, in the same way as we should recognise these rights for individual human beings; and that the same ethical and moral attitudes should apply to ape beings and human beings alike.” – NhRP founding board member Dr. Jane Goodall

July 14th is World Chimpanzee Day, a day to celebrate chimpanzees and raise awareness about their imperiled status and the need to better protect and conserve the species.

Here at the NhRP, we are working in the United States to have captive chimpanzees’ personhood and fundamental right to liberty recognized through our groundbreaking litigation. Recognition of chimpanzees’ right to liberty is the only way to truly protect them from human-caused harm, now and in the long term. While animal welfare laws and policies, such as standards of care for housing, can help lessen captive chimpanzees’ suffering, they do not and cannot address the underlying cause: the loss of their freedom.

To date, we have filed habeas cases on behalf of four captive chimpanzees—Tommy, Kiko, Hercules, and Leo—whose imprisonment deprived them of their autonomy and ability to engage in their innate behaviors. In our filings, we have argued that under the law, our chimpanzee clients must be recognized as legal persons who possess the fundamental right to bodily liberty. While we have yet to see a court free one of our clients, we have made great strides in the fight towards chimpanzee rights. For example, a chimpanzee named Cecilia is now a person with rights thanks to litigation modeled on the NhRP’s; she is now living in a Brazilian sanctuary. Here in the US, in an opinion issued in response to a motion we filed with the New York Court of Appeals in Tommy and Kiko’s cases, Judge Eugene M. Fahey wrote that the court’s refusal to consider our clients’ case:

amount[ed] to a refusal to confront a manifest injustice … To treat a chimpanzee as if he or she had no right to liberty protected by habeas corpus 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 with a powerful assertion, that “[w]hile it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person,’ there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”

Ultimately, the “thinghood” status that chimpanzees are currently relegated to under US law and policy is what has caused captive chimpanzees in the US to suffer greatly and face an uncertain future. Our four chimpanzee clients illustrate what the life of a captive chimpanzee in the United States can look like.

Tommy | Status: unknown/missing

Our most tragic client, by far, is Tommy. When we took Tommy on as a client, he was being forced to live alone in a cage on Patrick Lavery’s used trailer lot in Gloversville, NY. His life had been marred by abuse and exploitation. Forced to perform in the entertainment industry and circuses, he eventually was sold to Lavery, who, claiming Tommy “likes being by himself,” chose to hold him in solitary confinement in a decrepit cage, where he lacked any companionship or enrichment except for a TV. It surprises many people to learn that this is not illegal, even under the Endangered Species Act protections finally extended to chimpanzees in 2015.

Today a group of philosophers submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of the NhRP's chimpanzee rights cases on behalf of Tommy and Kiko.

As of right now, Tommy’s location—or even whether he is alive—is unknown. Patrick Lavery claims he sold Tommy to a roadside zoo in Michigan. The owners of the zoo have claimed in turn they never had Tommy. Through records requests, we were able to find documents purporting the sale of Tommy to the Michigan zoo, but there is no confirmation he was actually transported out of the state of New York.

This is what can happen when a chimpanzee is treated as property, a mere “thing” to be bought, sold, traded, confined, hidden, and exploited with no oversight or consequence. There is a very real possibility Tommy will never be found, if he is even still alive. His fate is one that innumerable chimpanzees held captive in the United States have suffered, being used and then discarded when humans can no longer exploit them for profit, with many of the owners claiming it’s for the chimpanzees’ own good and that they are treated well. Our hope is that we will be able to locate Tommy and renew our advocacy for his freedom. Until then, we hope his life can serve as warning and prime example for why chimpanzees must be recognized as legal persons with the right to liberty.

Kiko | Status: Imprisoned in solitary confinement in Niagara Falls, NY

To the best of our knowledge, Kiko remains in the same position as when we first took him on as a client in 2013. Kiko is believed to be in his 30s and, like Tommy, he was exploited by the entertainment industry early in his life. Kiko is partially deaf because of physical abuse he suffered on the set of the made-for-TV movie Tarzan in Manhattan. He remains held captive by Carmen and Christie Presti in a cage in a cement storefront in Niagara Falls, NY where he as been seen and photographed with a steel chain and padlock around his neck.

Because of the New York courts’ failure to recognize Kiko as a legal person who enjoys the right to liberty, he continues to face a bleak existence of solitary confinement.

Hercules and Leo | Status: Rescued and enjoying their autonomy at Project Chimps

As the first nonhuman animals in history to be granted a habeas corpus hearing to determine the lawfulness of their detention, Hercules and Leo are perhaps the most famous chimpanzees in the US. In ordering such a hearing, the New York Supreme Court treated them just as it would have human beings believed to be unlawfully imprisoned. Though that court did not free Hercules and Leo from captivity or recognize their rights—believing itself bound by the ruling of an appellate court in Tommy’s case—their court case represents true progress in the fight for nonhuman rights, and Hercules and Leo will always remain an important part of this larger, continuing story.

When we first found Hercules and Leo, they were being leased to Stony Brook University by the New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) and living in a basement laboratory where they were used in experiments and locomotion research. During our litigation, Hercules and Leo were sent back to NIRC in Louisiana where they languished there for two years until Project Chimps, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Georgia, rescued them.

At Project Chimps, Hercules and Leo have been allowed to live life as they choose to, enjoying their autonomy for the first time in their lives. They have the freedom to move about and engage in their innate behaviors, and they are given the space and opportunity to recover from the trauma they were subjected to by NIRC and Stony Brook University.

Because they are treated as autonomous individuals with the right to liberty, they are thriving. Their story gives hope for what the future of currently captive chimpanzees can be like once their rights are recognized.


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