Four chimps fight for rights as 'people' not to be held in slavery

US lawyer Steven Wise says chimps are social, self-aware and deserve same rights as humans

Column LAST UPDATED AT 11:41 ON Wed 4 Dec 2013
Charles Laurence

SHOULD a chimpanzee be granted the same legal rights of “personhood” as a human, starting with the right not to be illegally detained and held in slavery?

This is a question now being pondered by judges in New York.

In the last two days, animal rights lawyer Steven Wise has filed petitions of habeas corpus on behalf of two 26-year-old chimps called Tommy and Kiko in the New York State Supreme Court. Today, he will file further petitions on behalf of two more chimps, Hercules and Leo, who are used for experiments at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, on Long Island.

The novelty of Wise’s legal action is that he is suing on behalf of the chimps, making them the plaintiffs just as if they were members of the species Homo Sapiens.

The idea of giving a “non-human” his day in court is not entirely new: as the late Alexander Cockburn wrote in a 2011 column for The Week, bringing animals before the bench was not uncommon in medieval Europe, and indeed in early colonial America.

Back then, the beast was generally a co-defendant, and faced much the same brutal fate. But as Cockburn wrote, at least “the rights of animals were similar in kind to the rights of the people at large”.

Cockburn was arguing for the rights of Tillikum the "enslaved" orca whale who had killed a trainer at a Florida marine park in 2010 and who he likened to Spartacus. 

Wise is asking the three separate judges serving the counties where the chimps live to issue the writs of /habeas corpus/, the legal tool at the heart of Common Law which establishes the right to freedom.

His petitions demand the immediate release of the apes from “illegal detention” and their transfer to any of the seven refuges run by the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.

The whole idea is to drive the thin end of a wedge into the contemporary concept of the legal status of “non-humans”. Whales, dolphins and elephants will be next on the docket.

Wise has spent 30 years campaigning for animal rights and runs the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), whose board members include the celebrated chimp expert Jane Goodall. He wants the judges to establish the precedent that man’s closest relative is not a “thing” but a “person” with rights including “bodily liberty”.

“Chimps are autonomous,” he says. “They self-determine their own lives, they are extraordinarily social, self-aware beings - behaviours and characteristics that qualify them as persons with a fundamental right to freedom.”

The NhRP spent months tracking down captive chimps in New York. They found Tommy in a trailer park in Gloversville, not far from Albany in upstate New York, in the custody of Pat Lavery and his wife.

The Laverys had rescued him from a private zoo ten years ago, and keep in a pen complete with a jungle play-set and a television on which he watches cartoons, but which Wise describes in court papers as a “small, dank concrete cage in a cavernous dark shed.” Kiko is kept in a cage in a private home in Niagara Falls.

“This is not just a one-off,” says Wise. “These are the first cases we are filing as part of a long-term strategic litigation campaign that stretches probably for the rest of my life and beyond.”

In his 2011 column, Cockburn offered cases in which pigs had been dressed in human clothes to be brought before the bench, and described how in 1575 a French lawyer had triumphed in defence of weevils accused of decimating the vineyards of Savoy.

The lawyer successfully established that since God had created weevils before the Sixth Day when he created man, the weevils had a prior claim on the vegetables of His creation. A judge ordered the villagers to provide the weevils with alternative grazing.

Nearly two decades later, in 1750, a French farmer was caught sodomising a female donkey in a field. While the farmer was sentenced to be burned at the stake, the donkey’s lawyers argued that their client was an innocent victim of rape. The animal was acquitted and released back to its pasture. 

As Cockburn commented, "The people of the Middle Ages, dismissed as primitives in many modernist quarters, were actually open to a truly radical idea: animal consciousness."

He would be cheering on Wise and his declaration that “for 30 years I’ve been an animal slave lawyer. I want to be an animal rights lawyer.” ·