Aping their betters? US animal rights group seeks human rights for chimpanzees - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 5 December

Animal rights activists campaign for chimpanzees’ personhood//Chimps are people too//Habeas Corpus for monkeys//Animal abuse and captivity//Cruelty to animals//Chimpanzees kept in poor conditions may be granted vital rights//Law suits about animal rights//

Aping their betters? US animal rights group seeks human rights for chimpanzees

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 5 December

Photograph: iStock

By David Harrison

His name is Tommy. He’s a chimpanzee who lives in a cage in New York. But is he also a person?

An animal rights group claims that he is, and they are not monkeying around. The non-profit Nonhuman Rights Project has filed what is said to be the first lawsuit seeking to establish the “legal personhood” of chimpanzees.

The US group has asked a New York state court to declare 26-year-old Tommy “a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned”. The lawsuit seeks a declaration that Tommy's “detention” in a “small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed” in central New York is unlawful. The campaigners are demanding that he be released immediately to a primate sanctuary.

Chimpanzees are humans’ closest living relatives. They share 94 per cent of our DNA, and we have common ancestors from 4 to 6 million years ago, according to scientists.

Steven Wise, the group’s president, says that Tommy’s case for “personhood” is strong. “Chimpanzees possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected in human beings. There's no reason why they should not be protected when they're found in chimpanzees.”

Tommy’s lawsuit is one of three the group is filing on behalf of four chimps in New York state this week. The others are for Kiko, also 26, who lives on a private property in Niagara Falls, and Hercules and Leo, two young male chimps used in research at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

Mr Wise visited Tommy in October after reading about exotic animals kept at Patrick and Diane Lavery’s used trailer lot in Gloversville, New York. He said that Tommy hardly moved and looked “terrible” and “depressed”.

Professor David Favre, an animal law expert at Michigan State University College of Law, said that the petition was the first filed for an animal under habeas corpus, the centuries-old right in English law to challenge unlawful detention.

“The focus here is whether a chimpanzee is a ‘person’ that has access to these laws,” he said.


1. Why do people fight for animal rights?
2. Should humans be allowed to keep chimpanzees in captivity? What about other animals?
3. Who will benefit from chimpanzees having more rights? Who won’t benefit?
4. Many people feel that we should fight for the rights of oppressed humans before we fight for the rights of animals. Where do you stand on this issue?

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