"Legal personhood" for chimps is at the heart of a case filed in a New York state court
Tuesday by the animal rights nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project.
The group is seeking an order, on behalf of four chimps, for their release to a sanctuary that is a member of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, where they will be allowed to live out their lives with other primates in a natural outdoor setting, the Associated Press reported
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One of those chimpanzees is a 26-year-old named Tommy, which, according to the group, is presently being detained in a "small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed" in central New York.
Chimpanzees "possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they're found in human beings," Steven Wise, the president of Nonhuman Rights Project, told Reuters
. "There's no reason why they should not be protected when they're found in chimpanzees."
In this case, the animal rights organization is requesting that the court declare Tommy "a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned."
According to Wise, the suit is the initial step of a concerted effort by the nonprofit to provide basic rights for chimps that would prohibit them from being used for entertainment or research purposes.
"Once we prove that chimpanzees are autonomous, that should be sufficient for them to gain legal personhood and at least have their fundamental interests protected by human rights," Wise told the AP.
"We've been preparing for lawsuits for many years. These are the first in a long series of suits that will chip away at the legal thinghood of such non-human animals as chimpanzees," Wise added, and if need be, "we'll take it to the Appellate Division and then the state Court of Appeals."
Two of the four chimpanzees named in the suit are owned by Stony Brook University on Long Island.
Both the AP and Reuters reported that the university, as well as the owners of the other two chimps, did not return media inquiries this week.
The lawsuits come as medical authorities re-examine the employment of chimpanzees in research, due to new technology that renders the use of chimpanzees less necessary, Reuters noted.
In January, U.S. National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins called chimps "very special animals" that deserve "special consideration."
The admission by the director of one of the world's foremost medical research centers was celebrated by various animal rights organizations, with some considering it the first step toward a change in policy as to how chimps are treated at medical research facilities.
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