Primal rights: Justice for Tommy the chimp
Plaintiff Tommy the chimp of Johnstown, New York has made legal history. Attorney Steve Wise on December 2, 2013 presented a case on behalf of the chimp for his legal right to bodily liberty. Wise who represents the Nonhuman Rights Project, asserts that 26-year-old Tommy, who has been kept alone in a cage in a local warehouse, is a person, possessing a legal right to bodily liberty previously reserved for humans and has a right to not be owned or imprisoned against his will.
Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project bases their assertions for legal rights on decades long research conducted by nine of the world's leading primate scientists. These scientists have consistently demonstrated an intense level of complexity, self-awareness and autonomy exhibited by chimps comparable to humans. The lawsuits argue that personhood derives from cognitive and emotional qualities that chimpanzees, like humans, possess in abundance. While previously this kind of evidence has been applied to questions of cage size and welfare this case marks the first time that chimps similarities to humans have been related to the more basic legal question of personhood.
According to Wise, "It doesn’t matter if you're a human or a chimp, if you have the cognitive capacity to live life as you choose, you should be able to do that. Your species is completely, completely irrelevant."
It is unclear if the lawsuit will be dismissed or not. The legal system is not known for being radical in their approach to decisions such as this especially since the implications and precedent for a suit could be attributed to other animals living in research institutions and farms.
There are some animal protection laws already on the books especially for endangered species. But these don't consider the individual animal or its "personhood". Rather they reflect the value society places on populations and species units. Individuality might be acknowledged in requirements that research chimpanzees be given toys to play with, but these are only token generosities given by humans to their closest relatives not acknowledgement of an animal's essential personhood. Wise, if given the opportunity to be heard by the courts will argue the chimps "personhood" and his associated rights under that identification.
Wise points out that "There is no question this court would release Tommy if he were a human being. There can be equally no doubt that Tommy is imprisoned for a single reason: despite his capacities for autonomy, self-determination, self-awareness, and dozens of other allied and connected extraordinarily complex cognitive abilities, he is a chimpanzee."
Read more at Wired.
Chimp image via Shutterstock.