Lawsuit Filed Today on Behalf of Chimpanzee Seeking Legal Personhood

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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.

Comments
106 Responses to “Lawsuit Filed Today on Behalf of Chimpanzee Seeking Legal Personhood”
  1. 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)

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. Robert says:

    Some Lawsuits benefit others a lot some of them are …http://bit.ly/J32SaN

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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

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

    http://www.thisishartlepool.co.uk/history/thehartlepoolmonkey.asp

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

    Uncle Simian Sam needs you now!

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

  10. 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.

  11. Olga Djurdjevic says:

    Please show kindness and mercy and God will have mercy on you

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  1. […] morning, an animal rights group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed a lawsuit in a New York Supreme Court in an attempt to get a judge to declare that chimpanzees are legal […]

  2. […] Rights Project, qui lutte depuis 2007 pour donner des droits aux espèces autres que la nôtre, a déposé une première plainte, lundi 2 décembre, devant un tribunal de Johnstown (New York) au nom de Tommy, un chimpanzé de […]

  3. […] Nonhuman Rights Project has sued in New York arguing that chimpanzees have the right to bodily liberty and therefore should be freed […]

  4. […] is the title of a recent story put out by the Nonhuman Rights Project.  This is an interesting story which can be discussed from […]

  5. […] Rights Project, qui lutte depuis 2007 pour donner des droits aux espèces autres que la nôtre, a déposé une première plainte, lundi 2 décembre, devant un tribunal de Johnstown (Etat de New York) au nom de Tommy, un […]

  6. […] personhood’. The lawsuit seeks to extend the concept of habeas corpus to chimpanzees, drawing an analogy with one of the most famous anti-slavery cases, that of James Somerset in 1772, an American […]

  7. […] in cases alleging unlawful imprisonment, including those of detainees in Guantánamo. The lawsuit makes reference to a famous 1772 English case that dealt with an American slave named James Somerset, who had […]

  8. […] and his team made history on 2 December 2013 by filing a writ of habeas corpus in Fulton County Court, NY on behalf of Tommy […]

  9. […] Details of the suits are here. * The official press release is here. * Bios on the four chimpanzees are […]

  10. […] and no doubt expecting such an initial reaction, the group will appeal these decisions. On their website, the NhRP explains that when slaves in the eighteenth century began using habeas corpus to […]

  11. […] NhRP asked the New York courts to set free the chimps named in the lawsuits, just as an English court in 1772 set an American slave free, when it declared him a legal person instead of a piece of property. The group explains its ultimate goal: […]

  12. […] Rights Project to file a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Tommy, a chimp whom it says “is being held captive in a shed at a used-trailer lot,” forces human rights advocates like me to consider how broad the concept of rights really […]

  13. […] in cases alleging unlawful imprisonment, including those of detainees in Guantánamo. The lawsuit makes reference to a famous 1772 English case that dealt with an American slave named James Somerset, who had […]

  14. […] organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project (NHRP) filed several lawsuits in New York state courts last month asserting habeas corpus claims on behalf of several […]

  15. […] 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 […]

  16. […] addition to the NIH’s announcement last year, three lawsuits were filed in December 2013, asking a judge to grant a handful of captive chimpanzees the right to bodily liberty so that they […]

  17. […] being held in chains on a ship that was about to set sail for the slave markets of Jamaica,” Michael Mountain, of the Nonhuman Rights Project wrote in a blog post. “With help from a group of abolitionist attorneys, Somerset’s godparents filed a writ […]

  18. […] Read more about the efforts to save four imprisoned chimps here. […]

  19. […] l’association Nonhuman Rights Project, il vient de déposer ce lundi 2 décembre un mandat d’habeas corpus devant la Cour suprême de […]

  20. […] “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.” — Lawsuit Filed Today on Behalf of Chimpanzee Seeking Legal Personhood […]

  21. […] petitioner, the Nonhuman Rights Project, maintains a blog, with a fascinating post here concerning the reasons for the trio of New York habeas petitions, and another here concerning the […]

  22. website says:

    website

    Lawsuit Filed Today on Behalf of Chimpanzee Seeking Legal Personhood : The Nonhuman Rights Project

  23. […] 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 […]

  24. […] 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 […]

  25. […] 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 […]

  26. […] 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 […]

  27. […] 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 […]

  28. […] Lawsuit Filed Today on Behalf of Chimpanzee Seeking … – 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 … […]

  29. […] their human captors in an attempt to gain their freedom. The chimps’ lawyers were members of the Nonhuman Rights Project. They asked a judge to grant their clients the basic “human” right to not be imprisoned […]



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