Chimps Aren't People, New York Court Rules

Primates not entitled to human rights

Dec 5, 2014
Outside Magazine
chimp rights animal rights tommy new york appeals court outside outside online outside magazine habeas corpus wrongful imprisonment

Confined to a cage, Tommy's inability to uphold human social obligations means he's stuck there for now.    Chi King/Flickr

A New York appeals court ruled Thursday that a chimpanzee is not entitled to human rights, the Associated Press reports. The court denied legal personhood to a Fulton County chimp and excused his owners from releasing him from caged isolation in a warehouse.

The Nonhuman Rights Project filed cases in December 2013 in favor of the release of former entertainment chimp Tommy and three other New York chimps, noting a growing body of research showing similarities between chimps and humans. After Tommy’s lawyers lost in court, they appealed on grounds that Tommy lives in “solitary confinement,” Wired reports. If defined as a “person,” Tommy would be permitted protections under the writ of habeas corpus and have the right not to be wrongfully imprisoned. 

The three-judge panel’s ruling concluded that Tommy still doesn’t qualify as a “person” in the context of habeas corpus law, based on a lack of precedent. In addition, the court discussed the other side of personhood: duties.

“The ascription of rights has historically been connected with the imposition of societal obligations and duties,” the judges wrote. “Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions. In our view it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights … that have been afforded to human beings.”

“I just couldn’t picture any court granting habeas corpus for an animal,” Tommy’s owner, Patrick Lavery, told the Associated Press. “If it works for one animal, it works for all animals. It would open a can of worms.” The judges noted that the Nonhuman Rights Project didn’t claim Tommy was being mistreated.

However, the judges note that their ruling doesn’t “leave [animals] defenseless,” citing legal protections such as prohibition of animal torture and abandonment; it also encourages the Nonhuman Rights Project to seek further legal protections for chimpanzees in different ways.

The Nonhuman Rights Project plans to appeal the appeal ruling.

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!