Tommy the chimpanzee lives in a cage on private property in New York, according to the Nonhuman Rights Project.

Tommy the chimpanzee lives in a cage on private property in New York, according to the Nonhuman Rights Project.

2014 Pennebaker Hegedus Films Inc.

Chimpanzee 'personhood' fails on appeal

Advocates of “legal personhood” to chimpanzees have lost another battle.

This morning, a New York appellate court rejected a lawsuit by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to free a chimp named Tommy from captivity. The group had argued that the chimpanzee deserved the human right of bodily liberty.

“The court nailed it,” writes Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and a noted opponent of personhood for animals, in an e-mail to Science. “The decision directly addressed the arguments for nonhuman animal legal personhood, and demonstrated clearly why they are wrong.”

The court’s decision is the latest setback for NhRP, an animal rights group that has been trying to free four New York chimpanzees—including two research chimps—since 2013. Two of the animals—Tommy and Kiko—live in cages on private property, according to the group. The other two—Hercules and Leo—are lab chimps at Stony Brook University.

In each case, NhRP filed a writ of habeas corpus, which allows a person being held captive to have a say in court. Lower courts rejected the lawsuits late last year, but NhRP appealed, and the first of those appeals—involving Tommy—was heard this October. The group hopes to eventually extend its argument about the right to bodily liberty to a variety of other animals.

In today’s decision, the court states that chimpanzees, although cognitively complex, aren’t entitled to the same legal status as human beings. “[We] conclude that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person’ entitled to the rights and protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus,” the judges write. Only people can have rights, the court states, because only people can be held legally accountable for their actions. “In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights … that have been afforded to human beings.”

Instead of trying to grant rights to chimpanzees, the court notes that NhRP could push for further legal protections for the animals, perhaps by advocating for stricter state animal welfare laws.

Cupp agrees with that strategy. “If a chimpanzee hurts someone, he should not be subjected to a criminal trial and punishment,” he writes. “Although we have a moral duty to take very good care of them, rights and moral responsibilities do not fit chimpanzees.”   

In an e-mail to Science, NhRP Executive Director Natalie Prosin says the judges’ reasoning is incorrect. “The Court ignores the fact that the common law is supposed to change in light of new scientific discoveries, changing experiences, and changing ideas of what is right or wrong,” she says. “It is time for the common law to recognize that these facts are sufficient to establish personhood for the purpose of a writ of habeas corpus.” NhRP, she says, will appeal the case to the state’s highest court.

In the meantime, NhRP is pushing ahead with its other chimp cases. On Tuesday, it made oral arguments to another New York appellate court in the Kiko case, and it plans to appeal the Hercules and Leo case. It’s also moving ahead with personhood lawsuits in other states that will target both elephants and chimpanzees.

Follow News from Science

Latest News

dancing shoes
Volcano erupting at night