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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' effort begins new court battle

Chimpanzees are back in court. Today, judges in New York state heard the first in a series of appeals attempting to grant “legal personhood” to the animals. The case is part of a larger effort by an animal rights group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to free a variety of creatures—from research chimps to aquarium dolphins—from captivity.

Late last year, NhRP filed lawsuits in three New York lower courts on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in the state. Two—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. The litigation was spearheaded by Steven Wise, a prominent animal rights lawyer and NhRP’s founder, who spent years consulting with scientists, policy experts, and other lawyers to hone a strategy. His group settled on filing a writ of habeas corpus, which allows a person being held captive to have a say in court. Any judge that granted the writ would be tacitly acknowledging that a chimpanzee is a legal person and thus must be freed from its current confines.

That didn’t happen: All three lower courts dismissed the lawsuits. So NhRP appealed, and Wise argued the first of those appeals this afternoon. Making his case for Tommy in front of a five-judge panel and a packed courthouse, he contended that chimpanzees are so cognitively and genetically similar to humans that they deserve a fundamental right to bodily liberty. He wants Tommy—and eventually the other chimpanzees—moved to a sanctuary in Florida. Wise didn’t have any pushback: Tommy’s owners didn’t appear in court, and they didn’t file legal briefs challenging the case.

“It went as well as we could have hoped,” says NhRP’s executive director, Natalie Prosin, who was also at the hearing. “The judges were really engaged. They had obviously read our briefs and materials, and they asked really intelligent questions.”

Prosin is also heartened by a move the court made in July. In response to NhRP’s concerns that Tommy’s owners would try to move him out of state to avoid further litigation, the judges unanimously granted a preliminary injunction to prevent any move. “That was a major victory for us,” Prosin says. “It means the court thinks our appeal has a decent chance of success.”

That’s a fair assessment, says Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and a noted opponent of personhood for animals. But he still doesn’t think NhRP is going to win. “The weight of precedent and reasoning goes so strongly against these cases,” says Cupp, who would rather see a focus on animal welfare than animal rights. “Animal personhood is an artificial and unrealistic concept,” he says. “Language won’t help these creatures—human responsibility will.”

The appellate court likely won’t issue a decision for a few weeks. Prosin says that if NhRP loses it will appeal to the state’s highest court. A positive outcome there could grant chimpanzees personhood throughout New York. But a negative outcome could have the opposite effect, Cupp says, setting a statewide legal precedent that animals cannot be legal persons. “This could backfire on them.”

Meanwhile, Prosin says she expects an appellate court to hear the Kiko case in early December. NhRP’s attempt to appeal the Hercules and Leo case was dismissed on technical grounds, but the group will file a new appeal next month. Prosin says that as far as she knows both chimps still reside in a lab at Stony Brook, where they are the subjects of experiments to understand the evolution of human bipedalism. (A university representative would not comment on the case, citing the ongoing litigation.)

Regardless of what happens in any of these cases, Prosin says her group is already preparing personhood lawsuits in other states. The next target, she says, will likely be a pair of elephants living in a zoo or circus. NhRP also has more chimpanzees in its sights, though Prosin won’t say if they are research chimps. “We’re feeling really hopeful going forward.”