A group called the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has filed an
unusual legal actionto try to free a chimp that’s allegedly kept as a pet in a tiny cement cage in an upstate New York used trailer lot.
The lawsuit demands a writ of habeas corpus — essentially a document granting freedom — on behalf of Tommy the chimp so he can be moved to an animal sanctuary that’s more like his natural habitat than his current cage. NhRP is filing two other suits this week seeking freedom for three more New York chimps.
The NhRP says it’s basing the three suits on a 1772 case involving an American slave named James Somerset. After Somerset’s owner took him from Virginia to England, a group of abolitionist lawyers filed a petition to have him freed.
The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.
So how does this ruling apply to Tommy the chimp (and the other chimps NhRP is trying to free — Kiko, Hercules, and Leo)? First of all, New York state has recognised the commonlaw notion of habeas corpus, NhRP says. The state has also embraced Lord Mansfield’s ruling in the Somerset case, according to NhRP.
Of course, chimps aren’t human beings. But the NhRP makes a pretty strong argument that they’re more people than things, and that they’re entitled to “legal personhood.” The suit points out that humans and chimps share 99% of their DNA.
They can use tools, grieve, and speak in sign language. Like people, the NhRP’s legal documents point out, chimps have brains that are relatively big for their bodies. Chimps, like humans, are self-aware.
It is this self-awareness that makes life in a cage so hard for Tommy, a cognitive zoologist named Mathias Osvath wrote in an affidavit for NhRP.
“[C]himpanzees and other great apes have a concept of their personal past and future and therefore suffer the pain of not being able to fulfil one’s goals or move around as one wants,” he wrote. “Like humans they experience the pain of anticipating a never-ending situation.”
Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, told Business Insider this could be a “groundbreaking” case even though the chimps will probably lose.
“The chimps aren’t likely to win,” Winkler acknowledged in an email message. “But this case is symbol of our growing understanding of the similarities between chimps and humans. One of the difficult questions is where to draw the line. Which creatures have rights? Dogs? Chickens? Cows? Deer? Killing animals is not an unusual thing in America. It’s practically our way of life.”
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