Chimps Are People, Too? Lawsuit Will Test That Question : The Two-Way Chimps are cognitively similar to humans and should be entitled to the fundamental right of liberty, an animal rights group is arguing. The writ of habeas corpus filed on behalf of a chimp in New York is exploring new ground.

Chimps Are People, Too? Lawsuit Will Test That Question

A four-month-old baby Chimpanzee is seen at the National Zoo in Kuala Lumpur in February 2013. Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

A four-month-old baby Chimpanzee is seen at the National Zoo in Kuala Lumpur in February 2013.

Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Is a chimp, living as a pet in the home of Patrick and Diane Lavery in Gloversville, N.Y., really enslaved and entitled to his freedom? Does the 26-year-old Tommy, who scientists argue is cognitively similar to humans, deserve some of the same rights as Homo sapiens?

Those questions are at the center of a lawsuit (pdf) filed in the State of New York Supreme Court in Fulton County, N.Y., on Monday.

As The New York Times puts it, "this is no stunt." Instead it is the culmination of a legal strategy that's been years in the making. The lawsuit was filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project, which has been working to change the common law status of some "non-human animals" from "things" to "persons."

The lawsuit uses a cornerstone of the legal system to seek this change. The Nonhuman Rights Project filed a writ of habeas corpus, which historically compels a judge to call upon a person's captor to explain why he has a right to hold the person captive.

"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," 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 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."

The motion filed on Monday argues that Chimps are being treated by the law as slaves, but it also argues that the law right now already gives legal personhood to nonhumans: Domestic animals, for example, who are the beneficiaries of trusts and, of course, it also extends some human legal rights to corporations.

Also, the motion argues, leading scientists say that "... Chimpanzees possess such complex cognitive abilities as autonomy, self-determination, self-consciousness, awareness of past, anticipation for the future and the ability to make choices; display complex emotions such as empathy; and construct diverse cultures. The possession of these characteristics is sufficient to establish common law personhood and the consequential fundamental right to bodily liberty."

The Nonhuman Rights Project is asking the judge to order Tommy free and that he be sent to a sanctuary where he can be properly taken care of.

The Times spoke to the man who keeps Tommy:

"Patrick C. Lavery, the owner of Circle L Trailer Sales in Gloversville, where Tommy lives, said he heard about the petition from reporters' telephone calls. He said from his home in Florida that he had complied with all state and federal regulations, that Tommy had a spacious cage 'with tons of toys,' and that he had been trying to place him in sanctuaries, but that they had no room. He said he had rescued the chimp from his previous home, where he was badly treated.

"'People ought to use common sense,' he said. Of the Nonhuman Rights Project, a group he was not aware of, he said, 'If they were to see where this chimp lived for the first 30 years of his life, they would jump up and down for joy about where he is now.'"

David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law and an expert on animal law, tells Reuters that this is the first time a habeas petition has been filed on behalf of a non-human animal. That means this is novel and predicting an outcome could be tricky.

The Nonhuman Rights Project also said it was filing similar suits in two other New York jurisdictions seeking "identical relief on behalf of chimpanzees unlawfully detained."