New York Judge to Decide Whether Chimps are Persons

An attorney with a non-human rights organization is speaking on behalf of a chimp named Tommy who currently lives in a cage in New York. Attorney Steven Wise argues that the chimp should be moved from “solitary confinement” into an environment that most resembles his natural habitat and where he can play with other chimps. After all, chimps are people too, he argues. From the Associated Press:

Attorney Steven Wise argued before a five-member mid-level appeals court Wednesday on behalf of Tommy, who lives alone in a cage in upstate Fulton County. A trial-level judge has refused a request by Wise and his Nonhuman Rights Project to have Tommy released to join other chimps at a Florida sanctuary that mimics their natural habitat.

Wise argues that animals with human qualities, such as chimps, deserve basic rights, including freedom from imprisonment. He’s also seeking the release of three other chimps in New York and said he plans similar cases in other states. If he succeeds, he said he will seek personhood for other species with human qualities, which he defines as self-determination and autonomy.

One of the judges said the state has laws to protect animals from mistreatment and suggested they might be a more appropriate avenue to ensure Tommy’s welfare.

But Wise said the case is not about well-being, but unlawful imprisonment.

“What about the detention makes it unlawful?” asked Presiding Justice Karen Peters.

“Keeping a legal person in solitary confinement in a cage is unlawful,” Wise replied.

The key question is whether a chimp is a person.

Richard Cupp, a professor at Pepperdine Law School who writes and speaks extensively about the legal and moral status of animals, said by phone Wednesday that granting legal personhood and rights to animals could unintentionally dilute the concept of human rights.

“We could see over time some of our most vulnerable humans losing out in a rights struggle if they’re in direct competition with some particularly intelligent non-human animals,” Cupp said. “We could have the personhood paradigm weakened by extending it to animals.”

Cupp, and several of the judges, noted that rights come with responsibilities. “Human beings are the only species where most of us are capable of the responsibilities that go with rights,” Cupp said.

If you want to treat animals as you would humans, then not only would we say that they have “rights,” we’d also be incarcerating them for murder, rape, assault and battery, theft, etc. Rights are always understood to go hand in hand with responsibilities. We all want to live in a free society, but something has to be done to those who violate basic human rights. Treating chimps like humans would mean that most of them would be locked up anyway for committing a crime. Does that attorney representing the chimp really want that?

Besides, this is a 26-year-old chimp we’re talking about, who was previously an entertainer. He’s never really been around chimps before, and as such, it would be dangerous to all of a sudden dump him in some chimp “sanctuary.” According to Tommy’s caretaker, he has special needs and lives in a 7-room enclosure with toys and even “color TV, cable and a stereo.” I think he’s quite happy where he is.