Ape personhood is step in right direction

Last month, an organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a lawsuit in New York seeking the recognition of chimpanzees as legal persons. If successful, the case would represent a blow to the artificial legal barrier between humans and animals that allows for the exploitation of the latter by the former. As the law currently stands, animals – chimpanzees included -are regarded as little more than human property.

The legal action filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project centers on Tommy, a captive chimpanzee living at Circle L Trailer Sales in Gloversville, N. Y. According to the New York Times, the lawsuit seeks to place Tommy in one of the eight sanctuaries that make up the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance. “This petition asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned,” the court filing states.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a decision this summer by the National Institutes of Health to significantly reduce its use of chimpanzees in biomedical research.

Steven M. Wise, an animal rights lawyer who leads the organization, took quite some time deciding where to file the legal action. “We spent five years looking at all 50 states to determine which states might have the most favorable laws for us,” Wise told the International Business Times. “We had to run several thousand evaluations and write some very long memos, and through that we slowly narrowed it down to several states.”

Ultimately, the Nonhuman Rights Project settled on New York for its maiden legal venture because of the state’s strength with common law writ of habeas corpus. “A writ of habeas corpus requires that a person under arrest be brought before a judge,” according to the International Business Times. “This procedural maneuver is one of the few cases where a third party has standing to ask for it, and has historically been used by black slaves to challenge their status as property. New York has affirmed that the availability of a common law habeas corpus writ cannot be taken away by legislation, and also allows petitioners to appeal a habeas corpus decision that doesn’t go their way.”

The Nonhuman Rights Project will soon be petitioning for the freedom of three more apes. According to the New York Times, “Two of the chimpanzees are believed to be owned by the New Iberia Research Center, at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, but are housed at Stony Brook University for a study of locomotion. The fourth, according to the rights project, is owned by Carmen Presti of Niagara Falls, who runs the Primate Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization that has monkeys and the one chimpanzee.”

Of course, the aspects of these cases that make them more likely to succeed are also those that will limit their influence. Granting personhood to chimpanzees is far less financially threatening than it would be to grant personhood to, say, chickens, because the former are exploited on a much smaller scale than the latter. Similarly, since chimpanzees are humans’ closest living relatives, granting them personhood would require less of a break with our anthropocentric value system.

Still, like it or not, change is incremental. And as the saying goes, those who demand all-or-nothing typically get nothing. Let’s hope these suits by the Nonhuman Rights Project are successful and can open the door to broader challenges to animal exploitation.

Photo:Young members of a chimpanzee family wrestle with each other. CC/ShinyThings




Jon Hochschartner
Jon Hochschartner


Jon Hochschartner is author of “The Animals’ Freedom Fighter: A Biography of Ronnie Lee, Founder of the Animal Liberation Front,” which is slated to be published by McFarland & Company. He's written professionally for the San Francisco Chronicle, Slate and Salon, among many other publications.