News Column

Chimpanzees' Rights Championed in Lawsuit

December 3, 2013

Donna Leinwand Leger, USA TODAY

Chimpanzee personhood is sought in lawsuit (Erin Conway-Smith, AP)

A first-of-its-kind lawsuit filed Monday asks a judge to free a chimpanzee that a lawyer says is being held against its will in New York.

Tommy, a 26-year-old chimp who lives on a reindeer farm in Gloversville, N.Y., is illegally imprisoned and under New York law has the right to live a more "chimpanzee-like" life at a sanctuary, says attorney Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project.

The lawsuit accuses Patrick and Diane Lavery of holding Tommy "in solitary confinement in a small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed" at their property, the lawsuit says.

Chimpanzees can make choices and, like humans, have an interest in freedom to live as they wish, Wise says. "It would seem exceedingly unlikely that any chimpanzee would choose to live life in a cave."

Patrick Lavery says Tommy is one of 11 chimps he has rescued from abusive homes and cared for until they could be relocated to sanctuaries. Tommy, the last of the 11, has lived with them for more than a decade while they search for a place for him near enough to Ocala, Fla., where the couple has a second farm, so they can visit him.

"He's actually my favorite. He's so attached to us. When we get home, he'll be so excited to see us," Lavery says.

The cage in New York where Tommy now lives exceeds federal and state standards and is inspected every year, Lavery says. One wall opens to an outdoor area. This time of year, Tommy stays inside in a building heated to 70 degrees with concrete walls decorated to look like a jungle. "The chimp has color TV and cable," Lavery says. "He watches cartoons."

The lawsuit asks a New York civil court for a writ of habeas corpus for Tommy, arguing that New York laws "do not limit legal personhood to homo sapiens." The lawsuit notes that, in the past, the court has decided legal issues involving other domestic animals.

State law allows any person unlawfully detained to seek a writ of habeas corpus that requires the jailers to prove the basis for the detention. New York issued such writs for slaves, not considered people under the laws of the time, to determine whether the slaves should be returned to their purported owners or given freedom, the lawsuit argues.

The Nonhuman Rights Project intends to file two additional lawsuits to free three other chimpanzees in New York, Wise says.

Copyright 2013 USA TODAY

Original headline: Lawsuit champions chimp's rights

Source: Copyright 2013 USA TODAY