Lawsuit Filed Today on Behalf of Chimpanzee Seeking Legal Personhood


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.

The legal team decided to do a clean sweep of all the chimpanzees we could find in the state of New York.

Rather than filing a single suit, the legal team decided to do a clean sweep of all the chimpanzees we could find in the state of New York. This was, in part, because we were increasingly worried about their health and welfare, in that two other chimpanzees who were originally going to be our first plaintiffs both died before we could bring the case.

Those two were Merlin and Reba, who were living in intolerable conditions at a roadside zoo, the Bailiwick Ranch and Discovery Zoo. The day our investigative team first visited this zoo, they found Merlin living alone, next to a bear, a tiger, and other animals pacing in their cages. When they asked about Merlin’s companion, Reba, they were told that she had recently died. Three months later, we visited the zoo a second time, only to discover that Merlin’s cage was empty. He, too, had died, two days earlier, of complications from an abscessed tooth. The owner of the zoo told us that Merlin had been punching himself in the face for several weeks before they had realized that something was the matter. He died in surgery.

kikoAnd then, just a few weeks ago, Kiko’s companion, Charlie, died of a heart condition that is common to chimpanzees in captivity. He was only about 28 years old.

When we visited Tommy, we found him in a small cage at the back of a dark shed at a trailer sales park that’s also home to a business called Santa’s Hitching Post that rents out reindeer for Christmas shows and other entertainment. Tommy was all by himself – his only company being a TV on a table on the opposite wall. Three years ago, to the best of our knowledge, there were four chimpanzees at Santa’s Hitching Post, and not long before that there were six.

With so many deaths having occurred so recently, we were now deeply concerned that Tommy, too, could die at any time before he could ever have a chance to walk on grass and climb in trees with others of his own kind. The same could also happen to Kiko, who has inner ear problems and suffers from motion-type sickness due to abuse early in his life. (We have no insight into the condition of Hercules and Leo since there is no way for us to gain access to the laboratory at Stony Brook.)

So, the conclusion of the legal team was to move as quickly as possible and to file suit on behalf of all the chimpanzees we could locate in the state. (There may, in fact, be more than these four, but no official record exists in New York State of chimpanzees who are being owned by humans.)

The Writ of Habeas Corpus

The legal cause of action that we are using is the common law writ of habeas corpus, through which somebody who is being held captive, for example in prison, seeks relief by having a judge call upon his captors to show cause as to why they have the right to hold him.

More specifically, our suits are based on a case that was fought in England in 1772, when an American slave, James Somerset, who had been taken to London by his owner, escaped, was recaptured and was being held in chains on a ship that was about to set sail for the slave markets of Jamaica. With help from a group of abolitionist attorneys, Somerset’s godparents filed a writ of habeas corpus on Somerset’s behalf in order to challenge Somerset’s classification as a legal thing, and the case went before the Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield. In what became one of the most important trials in Anglo-American history, Lord Mansfield ruled that Somerset was not a piece of property, but instead a legal person, and he set him free.

A clear case as to why these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned.

New York State recognizes the continuing viability of the common law writ of habeas corpus. New York case law permitted slaves to use the writ to challenge their status as legal things and establish their right to freedom. And the state also adopted Lord Mansfield’s celebrated habeas corpus ruling in the Somerset case.

While our legal petitions and memoranda, along with affidavits from some of the world’s most respected scientists, lay out a clear case as to why these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned, we cannot, of course, predict how each of the judges in the three county courts will respond. Habeas corpus cases are usually heard soon after being filed since the person is being held captive. So it’s possible that the judges in any or all of these cases could move quickly to a hearing – or to deny the petition altogether. On the other hand, considering that this is new legal territory, they could slow the proceedings down. And each judge could rule in a different way.

Whatever happens in the trial court, however, New York allows for an automatic appeal of an adverse habeas corpus decision. And either side can appeal the ruling. So our case will be heard, sooner or later, by New York’s intermediate appellate court, and quite possibly by New York’s highest court, the State Court of Appeals. And, from many points of view, that’s where we would like the case to be heard, since what happens at the appellate level has much wider reach than at the trial level.

Future suits

When, in 1772, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield ruled that James Somerset was a “legal person” who could not be held as another person’s property, this did not bring an end to slavery in the American colonies. Rather, it set the stage for numerous similar suits to be filed in courts across the newly formed states. In some cases, mainly in the north, judges ruled that the petitioners were “legal persons” with fundamental rights and set them free. In other cases, they did not.

Our goal is to breach the legal wall that separates all humans from all nonhuman animals.

Several states in the south, which considered slaves to be simply chattel, not legal persons, simply barred them altogether from using habeas corpus to challenge their enslavement. (Ultimately, it took almost a full century and then a civil war for the matter to be resolved.) And with rulings of that kind still in place in several states, the Nonhuman Rights Project would likely have a hard time demonstrating that any nonhuman animals are anything but chattel, too.

Our strategy, then, is to file as many suits as we have the funds to be able to pursue, and in the states where we have the best chance of winning them. We will also encourage other animal rights attorneys and legal experts to file similar cases, modeled on the ones that have been successful.

(In the State-by-State section of this website you can check out an interactive map that includes a brief synopsis of how previous rulings and subsequent laws may or may not favor our suits.)

Our goal is, very simply, to breach the legal wall that separates all humans from all nonhuman animals. Once this wall is breached, the first nonhuman animals on earth will gain legal “personhood” and finally get their day in court — a day they so clearly deserve.

103 Responses to “Lawsuit Filed Today on Behalf of Chimpanzee Seeking Legal Personhood”
  1. John T. Maher says:

    This is absolutely great news and I look forward to seeing the NHrP present its reasoned argument for legal personhood and standing for release from confinement in a court of law. It is time to confront this issue.

    • Jimmy Chonga says:

      This “motion” or “movement” reflects another, just a problematic, issue which regards the DE-volution of thought, rights, and freedoms in this nation. In the name of “progress”, REGRESS is actually made – to the point where, now, homosexuals can infringe on and claim the “right” to marry and sub-humans can (pretend) to claim the rights that humans deserve. Clearly, you “animals” on the LEFT are not evolved from the Apes, but you ARE rapidly getting there. Good luck with that.

    • Angela says:

      Tommy is still alive and kicking. I know the person who feeds him while his owners live in Florida for the winter months.

  2. Mariano SL says:

    :¬ ¿¿ cuánto tiempo se demorarán unos pocos irresponsables desactualizados, para cerrar definitivamente esta Asquerosidad de tortura y sufrimiento?, se demorarán el mismo tiempo en entender sobre la esclavitud de hace 150 años?, se demorarán el mismo tiempo en entender que la mujer tiene los mismos derechos y que pueda votar, hace 80 años?, demorarán el mismo tiempo en entender Lo del holocausto, hace 70 años? , cuanto se demorarán en entender que se gobierna con democracia, 40 años?. donde más, se esclavizo… ahora tienen un presidente de color, acá y en otros paises hermanos, Presidentas!!!!!. Deben morir más animales y sufrir más chicos , para entender que ésto de los ZOO es cerrarlo YA ? Hay maniobras ilícitas y crules!!! , ¿ cuanto tiempo mas les llevara a los irresponsables entender??. ¬(MSL)
    # Lo mas ridiculo y estupido es saber lo que es grave y malo, y continuar conviviendo con eso #(MSL)

    • Adelle newton says:

      Tiene mucha razón. Me siento que no pertenezco a esa época. Me imagino como una abolicionista en el tiempo de esclavitud. Es bien feo pero aún más para los animales.

  3. Lorien says:

    How exciting!

  4. Monique says:

    Thank you. This is such a leap forward, regardless what happens next. I hope it paves the way for a widespread change in how the world views animals and through it, helps to create a richer, exploitation-free life for animals.

  5. Madeleine L. says:

    Very exciting news! This could be groundbreaking.

  6. Rita Stevenson says:

    I hope for the very best for all the chimps in captivity, and that they al freed to a Sanctuary,
    NHRP is an incredible and much needed and required organisation who will fight for chimps
    in horrific captive isolated situation,
    Billy needs to be rescued and saved and brought to a Sanctuary that is NAPSA approved.

  7. I am so glad this is happening. I recently read the novel, A Beautiful Truth, which is well researched, and gives a graphic account of how necessary this type of suit is.

  8. pat says:

    What about kennel owners too being held responiable for all the Animals they keep in cages? Those Animals all have the right to better lives too!

  9. Lanette Larson says:

    It is about time….NO ANIMAL should be used for human entertainment NOR TESTING IN LABS OR ANYWHERE!!! They are innocent animals and we need to be these innocent babies voices!! PLEASE KEEP FIGHTING FOR THEM — ALL!!!

  10. Lanette Larson says:

    It is about time….NO ANIMAL should be used for human entertainment NOR TESTING OF ANY KIND. They are innocent and we need to be these innocent animals voices! PLEASE KEEP FIGHTING FOR THEM ALL!!!

  11. Lanette Larson says:

    NO ANIMAL should NOT be used for human entertainment NOR TESTING OF ANY KIND. We need to be these poor innocent animals voices….ALL OF THEM!!!

  12. Every breach in that legal wall reminds of the fact that animals are not resources, tools, objects but rather are sentient beings in their own right. Thanks for taking this on.

    • Anna says:

      I agree. In the UK we have the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for instance, and others, who monitor and ban this kind of cruelty through the justice system. Does this not happen in USA?

      • Michael Mountain says:

        There are a gazillion animal protection and animal rights organizations in the U.S. But if you ask “How’s it working out for chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins in captivity?”, the answer would have to be “Not very well.”

  13. Istvan Gersner says:

    We are witnessing a truly historic moment!
    One small step for a movement and a giant leap for mankind…

  14. jennifer says:

    Animals are more sensitive and compassionate thane humans..they care more for their young and pack.. they love unconditionally.. we should learn from them

  15. Gunther Ginckels says:

    Is this the right way? Using the 1772 case of afro-amercian slave James Somerset and claiming the principle of habeas corpus is saying that Afro-Americans are equal and the same as chimopansees. Giving ownership of his own body to a chimpansee should also consequently result in setting the chimpansee free – not in a reservation like done with the Indian people. I can agree to legislation banning the imprisonment of any animal and leaving animals in their natural habitat and protected. It is not clear to me what you want to achieve with this action.

    • Andrew Randrianasulu says:

      Well, chimpanzees were scientifically proven to be self-aware, and _very mentally sophisticated_ beings, up to using our most powerful weapon in battles here on Internet – language. This is long and very complicated story – check at least popular (but very well researched – including first-hand accounts of events) books by Eugene Linden (starting from “Apes, men and language” and all following books by same author). Check whole history of exploring (and rejecting, at the same time!) animal (or more correctly non-human animal) mind – they definitely persons. And yes, sanctuary for sapient beings MUST be different from its current form. Hard to implement properly in case of chimpanzee – but NOT impossible! Enter “animal mind” in Google search and read for example “Animal Mind: Science, Philosophy, and Ethics by Bernard E. Rollin ” – and of course his earlier works, Donald Griffin’s essays and books (Animal Minds
      Beyond Cognition to Consciousness), Steve Wise’s “Drawing the line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights”, Marc Bekoff’s books and blogs…science is NOT about blind belief, or at least it should never be. So, if even most skeptical _scientists_ very reluctantly agree with , at very minimum, _another mind complexity, comparable to ours_ – we better to accept reality (but of course check all relevant papers, if you can! At very minimum this will give you some little-known details and moments). So, evidence IS here – you just need to read it!

    • Michael Mountain says:

      Re the Somerset case: it’s not a matter of whether humans = chimpanzees, but rather a case of how to secure the most basic legal rights for chimpanzees using an approach that’s similar to what was used to secure legal rights for humans. Nor is it the case that Tommy would have to be simply let out into the street. Obviously that’s not possible. Human children have legal rights, but they still have guardians who look after their interests so they can’t harm themselves by doing anything they want. Bodily liberty, in this case, is about giving Tommy and the other chimpanzees a life that’s as close as possible to what they would experience in the wild – where they can decide how they want to spend their day, who they want to socialize with, etc.

  16. Barend says:

    How about Spain (since 2008)? ‘Spanish parliament approves ‘human rights’ for apes’.

  17. Harry says:

    Come on Ray, I know you’ve pulled a lot of pranks on me, but this one has gone to the extreme. Even if there were a group like this the presumption that they would spend so much time, money and effort on this type issue is hilarious. I’m sure that you can find a better way of helping your fellow man who is unemployed, hungry and in need of medical attention, both physically and mentally. I am sure that there are individuals within a mere 5 miles who need attention.
    This is a good one and I do applaud your effort.

  18. Gerald Polmateer says:

    Compared to abortion what does this mean?

    • Michael Mountain says:

      The Nonhuman Rights Project doesn’t get involved in issues concerning human rights. There are hundreds of organizations already working to seek rights for the unborn. The NhRP is the only organization seeking rights for nonhuman animals, and we keep our focus on that.

  19. Free Thinker says:

    Mr Lavery saved Tommy from a life in a cramped cage, crawling in his own feces. Mr Lavery gave him a jungle play area, cable television, a stereo system, and an all-you-can-eat supply of fruit and vegetables. Why the hell would you sue him?

    • Michael Mountain says:

      The NhRP is not, in fact, suing Mr. Lavery. It’s petitioning the court for Tommy to be released and transferred to a sanctuary. As for the conditions he’s in, please see the photo of him on the website here, or the video shown on CNN and other TV. The conditions in which we found him were shocking and intolerable – a small cage in a big, dark shed, and with only a TV for company and a caretaker who goes in to put out food. Mr. Lavery, we gather, spends the winter in Florida.

  20. Debbie Lewellen says:

    No animals ARE souls..
    When writing about the soul, the Bible writers used the Hebrew word ne′phesh or the Greek word psy•khe′. These two words occur well over 800 times in the Scriptures.When you examine the way “soul” or “souls” is used in the Bible, it becomes evident that this word basically refers to (1) people, (2) animals, or (3) the life that a person or an animal enjoys.

    So while this biblical interpretation wont’ hold up in court, take a viewpoint of the definition of these terms, look up the word personality, it’s a animated character, pick these words apart, Character and personality are synonymus with soul and being. These beings are living breathing entities, with character and personality, they have the range of feelings, emotions, and depth of character. Please look into this subject further, it will win your case.

  21. Christina Keefe says:

    Is there a petition that we could sign on behalf on the chimpanzees? How can we help?

    • Michael Mountain says:

      Not in this case. Petitions can be helpful for legislation, where you’re persuading your Congress person, but not in a court of law. Judges don’t respond to petitions. What the NhRP is doing is an altogether different approach from things like cruelty laws. This is about legal rights.

  22. A wonderful and refreshing approach to begin the process of redefining the word “dominion”. It breaks my heart to witness the pathological insensitivity and cruelty shown towards our fellow beings. I would be very grateful to know if there are any similar moves afoot in the UK, or indeed the European Union?

    Many Thanks for your superb efforts.

  23. Lizz says:

    I’m so glad to see there’s a group like this. Good luck with everything. I’m watching and will support to the best of my ability.

  24. Erno Eskens says:

    Let’s hope Steven Wise and the NHR win these cases. In the Netherlands, were I live, the Tommy lawsuit has drawn attention of the press. I hope the case will awaken people in other countries as well. There is some legal ground for law suits in our countries. European laws and the Duch constitution say that one is not allowed to discriminate on race, gender and – which is interesting – on birth. Since many animals we keep are being born, there seems to be a small opening in the juridical system here. Perhaps we can also point to the equality-principle that similar cases will be treated in a simular way. If pain and stress are similar in men and animals – this seems likely since we share a similar nervous system – perhaps judges can be moved on this point as well. If not, we call still do politics. In the Netherlands the Party for the Animals has two seats in Parliament. The American system is not very open to new parties unfortunately, but in 15 other countries Animal Parties are instigated. It is just the beginning of a new way of thinking about animals, and treating them more fairly. One way or the other, we will get there!
    Good luck, Erno Eskens – philosopher and author of Democratie for dieren (not yet translated as Democracy for Animals)

  25. I am so happy to hear that headway is finally being made with this issue! It’s awful how these animals are treated, and the entire situation is absolutely appalling. I will be sending good vibes your way so progress continues to be made!

  26. Nonhuman Legal Rights will provide legal voice for the “voiceless”. This is a very good happening for animals who are in distress and have a better chance for survival if returned to the wild. Enthusiasts, however, should not generalise all cases. Each case has a different story to tell and would meet a different consequence after a release. I congratulate all who are with good cases and for better results.

  27. Charles Barkley says:

    [Quote]Our goal is to breach the legal wall that separates all humans from all nonhuman animals.[/QUOTE]
    Next up, let’s give humans the right to marry chimpanzees, just like the gays!

  28. Robert says:

    Some Lawsuits benefit others a lot some of them are …

  29. Helder Dias says:

    I understand that this article is only about chimpanzees but could you please enlighten me about where the providing meat animals stand in this definition of personhood?

    • Michael Mountain says:

      Thanks for your question. We go simply where the established science takes us. Right now there is clear, unambiguous evidence that the great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorilla and orangutans), elephants and cetaceans (dolphins and whales) have the kinds of complex and sophisticated cognition, self-awareness and autonomy that will support our arguments to a court. If and when there is clear evidence of this in relation to other animals, we will consider filing suits on their behalf.

  30. Manel says:

    These Chimpanzees are very much like us human beings. It is totally unacceptable to abuse & mistreat them the way some people do. We live in a new era. The world has changed & the rules & regulations are need to be changed as well. Please send these chimps to a sanctuary to live like the normal chimpanzees. This type of using animals for others benefit purposes or to make money & profits are a brutal crime against the living beings. Such actions need to be BAN and the perpetrators must be severely punished. The laws need to bring forth that abusing animals means the harsh punishments for those subhumans.

  31. Interlineal P.E.Ruser_P.robable E.rror says:

    Spare a thought for that which befell the “Hartlepool Monkey”.

    There but for the grace of God go we. Habeas Corp_US.

    Uncle Simian Sam needs you now!

  32. I really like reading a post that can make people think.
    Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!

  33. Paul says:

    I am so excited that this much progress has been made! Best of luck with the proceedings. What ever the outcome is at the end of the day it will still be a step in the right direction to end the enslavement and torture of our fellow members of the animal kingdom.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] the first week of December, 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Group, an animal rights NGO, filed petitions for writs of habeas corpus in 3 sup…, to free 4 chimpanzees from what they identified as “illegal captivity,” and seeking a […]

  2. […] Group and animal rights lawyer Steven Wise involve the rights of four chimps. The first suit filed argued that a chimpanzee named Tommy was a legal person entitled to a limited right to liberty. The suit attempted to move Tommy away from his owners and […]

  3. […] Group and animal rights lawyer Steven Wise involve the rights of four chimps. The first suit filed argued that a chimpanzee named Tommy was a legal person entitled to a limited right to liberty. The suit attempted to move Tommy away from his owners and […]

  4. […] community of “persons” rather than “things.”  There are efforts underway right now to redefine legal personhood to include some animals in order to protect their rights.  While animals can certainly be wronged and therefore deserve to have recognized rights, I […]

  5. […] I write this, the Nonhuman Rights Project has gone to court in New York on behalf of several individual chimpanzees being held in cages in […]

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