A US animal rights group on Monday filed what it said is the
first lawsuit seeking to establish the "legal personhood" of
The non-profit Nonhuman Rights Project asked a New York state
court to declare a 26-year-old chimp named Tommy "a
cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the
fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned."
The lawsuit seeks a declaration that Tommy's "detention" in a
"small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed" in
central New York is unlawful and demands his immediate
release to a primate sanctuary.
Chimpanzees "possess complex cognitive abilities that are so
strictly protected when they're found in human beings,"
Steven Wise, the president of Nonhuman Rights Project, told
"There's no reason why they should not be protected when
they're found in chimpanzees," he added.
The lawsuit on Tommy's behalf is among three the group is
filing this week on behalf of four chimps across New York.
The other chimps are Kiko, a 26-year-old chimp living on a
private property in Niagara Falls, and Hercules and Leo, two
young male chimps used in research at Stony Brook University
on Long Island, the group said.
Tommy's owners, Patrick and Diane Lavery, and Stony
university did not immediately return requests for comment.
Kiko's owners could not be reached on Monday.
The Nonhuman Rights Project used its own research to find the
chimps, and Wise first visited Tommy in October after reading
a local newspaper article about exotic animals kept at the
Laverys' used trailer lot in Gloversville, New York, about 50
miles (80 km) northwest of Albany.
"He looked terrible," said Wise, who previously observed
healthy, wild chimps in Uganda. "Hey looked like a caged
chimpanzee - they don't move, they don't look at you. They
The lawsuit states that chimps are entitled to a "fundamental
right to bodily liberty," which Wise told Reuters is the
basic right to be left alone and not held for entertainment
The lawsuit was filed at "the earliest point at which we have
some reasonable chance at winning," said Wise, a well-known
animal rights activist and author of books including the 2000
title "Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals."
"These are the first cases in an open-ended, strategic
litigation campaign," he said. "We're just going to keep
Nonhuman Rights Project in 2007 began a nationwide search for
an optimal venue to file the lawsuits, Wise said. New York
was ultimately chosen because of its generally flexible view
of requests for a writ of habeas corpus, the centuries-old
right in English law to challenge unlawful detention, he
David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University College
of Law and an expert on animal law, said it is the first
habeas petition filed on behalf of an animal.
"The focus here is whether a chimpanzee is a 'person' that
has access to these laws," said Favre.
The lawsuits come as medical authorities re-examine the
employment of chimpanzees in research in light of new
technology that renders the use of chimpanzees less
In a decision applauded by animal rights groups, the US
National Institutes of Health in January said it was reducing
its use of chimps in biomedical research, retiring most to
sanctuaries. At the time, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins
called chimps "very special animals" that deserve "special
- Bernard Vaughan and Daniel Wiessner