An organization is fighting for a chimpanzee’s legal rights in the US. Lawyers from the group called the Nonhuman Rights Project are arguing for Tommy the chimp to be entitled to “legal personhood”. The 26-year-old ape, who lives in a caravan park in Gloversville in upstate New York, is confined to a shed where he spends his days watching cartoons and nature programs. His lawyer Steven Wise is soon to put forward his case, which also aims to have Tommy relocated to a Florida sanctuary, to the New York Court of Appeals. Metro talks to Wise on why this former circus performer deserves special treatment.
Why do chimpanzees need legal rights?
For the same reasons that humans need legal rights! It is the most certain way of preventing them from being exploited, abused and killed.
Okay but what kind of rights are you struggling for?
Chimpanzees, like every other nonhuman animal, are currently legal things who lack the capacity for all legal rights. They therefore have none.
What will be your main arguments at the New York Court of Appeals?
Chimpanzees are entitled to the fundamental right of bodily liberty that is protected by a common law writ of habeas corpus because they are autonomous and self-determining beings. Autonomy and the ability to self-determine are supreme common law values and indeed Western values. Because chimpanzees have them, they are entitled to a writ of habeas corpus to allow them to exercise these abilities. It also violates fundamental equality to discriminate against autonomous and self-determining beings simply because they are not human.
What makes this such a tough job?
It is hard to represent nonhuman animals in court because they are legal things that lack all legal rights. The Nonhuman Rights project is working to change that.
So if chimpanzees gain human rights, how will they be able to use them?
Chimpanzees should not have human rights, any more than a human should have chimpanzee rights. Human rights are for humans. Chimpanzee rights are for chimpanzees. They will exercise their rights through a guardian or other competent human being who can speak for them, which has long been done for human children and others unable to protect their human rights.