NY Court Will Decide If Chimps Qualify For Legal Personhood

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Lisa Winter

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2359 NY Court Will Decide If Chimps Qualify For Legal Personhood
Family of chimps. Credit: Michelle W via flickr, CC BY ND

Today a New York court will decide whether or not Tommy the Chimpanzee qualifies as a legal person. Tommy, a chimpanzee in his 20s, became well-known late last year when lawyer Steven Wise discovered him being held in a small, unclean cage and receiving inadequate care.

It is important to note that even if Tommy is declared a legal person, it does not mean he is human with human rights. Legally speaking, it would just afford him protection beyond existing animal cruelty laws. Personhood would give him rights pertaining to his self interest that would hold up in a court of law, similar to a parent or guardian acting on behalf of a child or disabled adult. Last year, India made headlines when they granted dolphins the status of nonhuman persons.


The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), for which Wise works, acts on behalf of nonhuman animals who are intelligent, self-aware and autonomous, including great apes, elephants, and dolphins. They seek to allow these animals to sue their owners and become released from captivity, transferring them to sanctuaries for the rest of their lives. They primarily target animals being held for laboratory research, though some, like Tommy, come from private owners.

Late last year, NhRP filed a writ of habeas corpus on Tommy’s behalf with the New York Supreme Court, on the grounds that he had been unlawfully imprisoned without having been placed under arrest or brought before a court. The Supreme Court rejected Tommy’s case, though NhRP did not give up.

Today, five judges of the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Department, in Albany will listen to Wise’s argument and decide if Tommy is a legal person. Wise will describe scientific evidence describing the intelligence of chimpanzees, and though he is not human, he is still aware enough to have certain rights.

The defendant, Patrick Lavery, attempted to move Tommy out of New York over the summer, which would have prevented NhRP from pursuing the appeal. The Appellate court prevented this move, which NhRP feels is encouraging for their chances today. The injunction was granted on the grounds that the plaintiff has a chance of success, irrevocable harm could come to Tommy if he moved, and that the interest of fairness favors NhRP. 


Wise and Lavery have not had any contact since the NhRP filed the 65-page-long brief, and the defendant is not expected to be present in the courtroom today. Tommy’s condition is currently unknown, though he is assumed to be alive. 

If today’s attempt is unsuccessful, the NhRP intends to take the case to the NY Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state.

[Hat tip: LiveScience]


  • tag
  • Animal Welfare,

  • chimps,

  • personhood