Tommy The Chimp Still Not A Person

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Yesterday, a New York State Appellate Division issued its ruling on the Nonhuman Rights Project’s petition to grant Tommy the chimpanzee personhood rights:

Noting that the Nonhuman Rights Project ”requests that this Court enlarge the common-law definition of ‘person’ in order to afford legal rights to an animal,” the Court’s decision was that “We decline to do so, and conclude that a chimpanzee is not a “person” entitled to the rights and protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus.

NHRP goes on to explain in detail why it disagrees with the decision, and says it will appeal the decision to the New York Court of Appeals.

While it would have been great if the Appellate Court had granted Tommy a writ of habeus corpus, establishing basic personhood rights to an animal for the first time (and, importantly, opening the door to his tiny cage in a trailer park so he could be moved to a sanctuary), the refusal to grant Tommy basic rights was not necessarily a surprise. This has probably always been a question that will be decided at the highest appeals court level (though it would have been nice to go to that level with a positive ruling to defend), and now the argument has just moved one level up the chain.

But the next level, the New York Court of Appeals, is the final level. If NHRP does not win the argument before that court, then that will put an end to its efforts to win personhood rights for a chimp via Tommy. The chance that its arguments for any single animal might fail is the reason NHRP originally launched legal bids on behalf of four chimps, to try to improve the odds of a successful outcome.

So if Tommy’s case doesn’t come to a successful conclusion, the hope is that Kiko, Hercules or Leo will deliver. Stay tuned. This is the long game.

“Kiko, Hercules, Leo, I may need your help.” Photo: Pennebaker Hegedus Films


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.

Big News Of The Day: NonHuman Rights Project Files Suit For Chimpanzees

“I’d really like the right to get out of here.”

We may talk about animal rights, but animals in fact have no legal rights. The NonHuman Rights Project is determined to change that, and win basic “personhood” rights for nonhuman animals, and has now filed its first lawsuit, on behalf of a chimpanzee named Tommy. Similar lawsuits will follow this week:

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.

Establishing some semblance of legal rights for animals is the new frontier for “animal rights,” and potentially the most powerful strategy possible to change the way in which humans relate to animals. Much more on the lawsuits being launched this week here.

Stay tuned….

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. 


Nonhuman Rights Explained

Steve Wise, the founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, explains in the Dyson Lecture the legal context and strategy for establishing civil law rights for nonhuman animals:

I am an “animal slave lawyer.” I have been practicing “animal slave law” for thirty-five years. I do not want to practice “animal slave law” anymore; I want to practice “animal rights law.” When I teach, I do not teach “animal slave law,” I teach “animal rights jurisprudence.” This jurisprudence does not yet exist; it is a jurisprudence that is struggling to come into existence.

If you are just starting to catch up on this potentially game-changing movement, Wise details exactly what he is doing to try and make animal rights come into existence:

Why Humans Don’t Want Other Animals To Have Rights

As I’ve noted before, Steve Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project is just about the most powerful campaign out there that is trying to change the way humans relate to animals.

Wise really gets it, and has started a series of video interviews exploring the issues at the heart of humanity’s immoral treatment of nonhuman animals.

First topic: the degree to which humanity is deeply involved in the exploitation of animals (and therefore resists giving animals rights that would change that relationship).

As Wise points out, it is almost, or simply flat-out, impossible for a modern human not to be involved in the exploitation of animals.

That is probably true, and something I am acutely aware of in my own life. But there are degrees of complicity, and the biggest step anyone can take to greatly reduce their complicity is to go vegan. After that, you need to pay attention to details like: products which use animal testing, or medicines which are developed with animal testing (a very complicated issue).

Beyond direct exploitation, there is the vast question of all the many ways in which humans indirectly exploit animals by lifestyles and choices which destroy habitat.

How far can you go to balance your life with the lives of nonhuman animals? What is the most difficult form of exploitation, direct or indirect, to reduce or eradicate from your lifestyle?

(Thanks to JV for tipping me to this video series).

Why The Nonhuman Rights Project Could Be Huge

We all have animals we care about, and we all do what we can to defend them. That is important, and makes a difference. But the single most important obstacle to more humane treatment of animals globally is that they have no legal rights. None. Change that, and you put the fight to defend and protect animals onto an entirely new playing field.

That’s exactly what the Nonhuman Rights Project is trying to achieve, and that’s why it is potentially the single most powerful campaign for animals there is. It can sometimes be hard to understand what the NhRP is all about and what their approach is. But recently, in a series of brief  posts on their website, they have perfectly captured what  they are up to and why it could be such a breakthrough for animals.

First, NhRP explains the hard fact that, despite what you may think, animals have no rights at all in the eyes of human law:

Hundreds of organizations say they work for “animal rights.” But the only animal with legal rights is the human animal. No other animal has any rights at all. None.

How come?

To have a legal right, one must have the “legal capacity” for a right. If one has this capacity for a legal right, one is a legal “person.” No nonhuman animal has been recognized as a legal “person,” This means that no animals, other than humans, have legal rights.

Statutes provide some protection for some nonhuman animals. It may be illegal to starve a circus elephant or withhold medical care from a chimpanzee in a zoo. But the elephant and the chimpanzee have no legal right to that kind of care. (Similarly, statutes may prevent you from stealing someone’s car, but the car has no legal rights, as the car is not a legal person with the capacity for any legal right.)

Second, they explain how they hope to bestow legal rights on animals in the same way that civil law, thanks to Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of Court of King’s Bench, first granted legal standing to slaves in the case of James Somerset:

In Western law, every nonhuman animal has always been regarded as a legal “thing.” We buy, sell, eat, hunt, ride, trap, vivisect, and kill them almost at whim. The reason is that legal “things” don’t exist in law for their own sakes. They exist for the sakes of legal “persons,” which we humans all are.

Legal “things” are invisible to civil law judges. They possess no legal rights and have no hope of ever having them.

A court confronted by a claim to any legal right need begin by determining the plaintiff’s species. If the plaintiff is human, the answer is “It is possible. She is a legal person.” If the plaintiff is a nonhuman animal, the answer is “Impossible. He is a legal thing.” [snip]

…A similar [to James Somerset] common law transformation of a nonhuman animal from legal “thing” to legal “person” is a primary objective of the Nonhuman Rights Project which seeks, through litigation and education, to persuade American state high courts to transform a nonhuman animal plaintiff the way Lord Mansfield transformed James Somerset: by declaring she is a legal “person” capable of possessing legal rights.

Once a court recognizes this, its next legal question will appropriately shift from the irrational, biased and overly simplistic question, “What species is the plaintiff?”, to the rational, nuanced, value-laden and policy-enriched question, “What qualities does the plaintiff possess that are relevant to the issue of whether she is entitled to the legal right she claims?”

And if any court were to ask that question, NhRP knows exactly the initial rights it will try to pursue:

We begin by seeking two kinds of fundamental rights for our nonhuman plaintiffs: bodily liberty and bodily integrity.

Bodily liberty means not being held in captivity. For a chimpanzee, it means not spending life in a laboratory; for an elephant, it means not being chained in a circus; for a whale it means not being imprisoned in a park.

Bodily integrity means not being touched without consent or in one’s best interests. For a chimpanzee, it means not being subjected to biomedical research. For an elephant it means not being beaten at a circus. For a whale it means not being forcibly inseminated to make her pregnant.

Do not confuse these fundamental rights of nonhuman animals with so-called “human rights.” Human rights are for humans. Chimpanzee rights are for chimpanzees. Dolphin rights are for dolphins. Elephant rights are for elephants.

To get there, NhRP is looking for the right animal, in the right state (Lolita is a potential candidate), to try and achieve the same breakthrough achieved with the James Somerset case. They are planning to file the first lawsuits by the end of this year, and be litigating them in state courts in 2014.

This could be huge, and NhRP is well worth keeping a close eye on (and supporting).



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