Is Tommy The Chimp About To Be Ruled A “Person”?

“I may not be human, but I’m still a person, dammit!”

Steve Wise and the NonHuman Rights Project have argued before a New York State Appeals Court that Tommy, a chimpanzee who lives alone in a tiny cage, is not a “thing” and deserves some legal rights. With the appeals court ruling pending, Wise runs through what may happen:

Now is a good time to explain what the decision of the Appellate Department Court will mean for Tommy and for the NhRP’s long-term strategic litigation campaign to break through the legal wall that divides human “persons”, who have the capacity for legal rights, from nonhuman animal “things”, who don’t.

The decision will mean everything for Tommy. Will he be transferred to Save the Chimps in South Florida, there to end his days in the company of a two dozen other chimpanzees, all living on an a semi-tropical island? Or must he live out a nasty, short, and brutish life in solitary confinement?

The appellate decision will be not be a simple matter of “We won” or “We lost.” The court could order any number of things. And whatever it orders may be subject to review by New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

It might declare that Tommy is a “person” within the meaning of New York’s habeas corpus law, issue the writ of habeas corpus, and return the case to the trial court.

It might assume, without deciding, that Tommy could be a “person,” and return the case to the trial court to rule on whether Tommy actually is a “person.”

It might affirm the trial court’s ruling that Tommy is not a “person” and never could be, not even if he argued the appeals himself. Then we will have several routes to the Court of Appeals. We have the right of further review by the Court of Appeals if two Appellate Department judges dissented or if the New York Constitution was invoked. We can ask the Appellate Department for permission to apply to the Court of Appeals for further review. And we can petition the Court of Appeals directly for permission to appeal. I have nowhere exhausted the possibilities.

This is a big deal. If Wise can somehow get this court or another appeals court to agree that Tommy deserves certain basic legal rights, he will have cracked through centuries of legal tradition that has treated animals as things, not sentient beings. And that tradition has resulted in untold animal suffering.

So stay tuned. If Wise loses this round, he is ready to appeal some more. But if he wins animal rights will take a giant leap forward. It is a fascinating legal and human, I mean non-human person, drama.

Nonhuman Rights Will Start With A Chimp

Do I look like property? Or like a thinking, feeling, nonhuman being?

For years, the Nonhuman Rights Project has been mapping the legal terrain, state by state, and animal by animal, to try and find the best case it can make on behalf of winning some legal rights for a nonhuman animal. According to the Boston Globe, the first case sometime later this year, will be on behalf of a chimpanzee:

In the next few months, an animal advocacy group called the Nonhuman Rights Project plans to file a case on behalf of its first animal client. It has already chosen the plaintiff, a captive chimp, on whose behalf it plans to file a writ of habeas corpus and ask a state court judge to grant the chimp’s liberty.

Their goal is to win animals a toehold in the world of legal rights—a strategy that is the culmination of more than two decades of writing and legal work by lawyer Steven Wise and an allied group of attorneys, scientists, and animal activists. They hope to have an animal declared a “person” in a court of law, breaking down a legal barrier between humans and other species that has stood for millennia.

Over the last century, animals have enjoyed a steady march in legal protections. Once treated no differently than inanimate objects, today they can’t be abandoned, beaten, or deprived of food, shelter, or veterinary care. Despite these protections, however, animals are still legally considered property. And for Wise and others, given what we now know about the biology and inner lives of animals, this is no longer a tenable distinction. It is time, they argue, to grant at least some species fundamental rights such as the right to life and freedom from captivity—and the surest way to accomplish that is for those animals to join human beings as legal persons.

How NHRP got there, and how the campaign will unfold, is also interesting:

Their choices were limited to a handful of species known to score high on practical autonomy, which included elephants, chimpanzees, cetaceans (dolphins, orcas, and other marine mammals), and African gray parrots. But there were other considerations, too. For instance, they’d have a stronger case with a charismatic animal being kept in what Wise calls a “dire” living situation, so that pretty much ruled out the parrots. In addition, they would need to have a wildlife sanctuary lined up to adopt their plaintiff if they prevailed. The lack of such sanctuaries for cetaceans ruled out dolphins and orcas. Likewise, while they were zeroing in on an elephant plaintiff this spring, neither of the two elephant sanctuaries in the United States had any more room. That left chimps.

To avoid tipping off the chimp’s owner, they won’t disclose the identity of their plaintiff until they are ready to go to court this fall. Armed with affidavits from scientists, including Jane Goodall, about chimps’ capacities, they will argue that their plaintiff deserves a right to liberty, and that its captivity is a violation of that right.

Win or lose, they plan to bring more habeas petitions on behalf of other animals, hoping to win enough small victories to lay a foundation of precedent for animal personhood. It’s unlikely to be a quick and easy fight, but Wise says he accepts that he’s in the animal-personhood game for the long haul. “This is a long-term, strategic, open-ended campaign,” he says.

The Globe does a nice job of looking at the legal and philosophical debate over Wise’s strategy. But at least Wise has a strategy, and any toehold he can win for animals will be a long overdue start to changing the exploitive and destructive relationship humans have with many nonhuman species. 


Protecting Captive Chimps

This could be big:

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Tuesday to bring captive chimpanzees under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, a move that would create one more major barrier to conducting invasive medical research on the animals for human diseases.

If the proposal is enacted, permits will be required for any experiment that harms chimps, and both public and privately financed researchers will have to show that the experiment contributes to the survival of chimps that remain in the wild. The recommendation is now open to public comment for 60 days.

And this would be even bigger, and an interesting precedent for other captive species that are listed as endangered:

Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society, who praised the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision, said his organization and others would use the comment period to pursue the issue of using chimps in entertainment.

While the argument for medical research has been that there is a compelling human need, he said there was no such argument for using young chimps in television advertisements, for example, which he described as “entirely frivolous.”

But under the Endangered Species Act, only uses that are considered harmful or harassing require permits. And use in entertainment has not traditionally been considered to be in the same class as taking blood or other invasive procedures.

In separate interviews, Mr. Pacelle and Dr. Goodall said chimps who are trained for entertainment are taken away from their social group when they are young, which is very harmful to them.

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