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Court to decide if chimpanzee should be granted human rights

It may sound like the script for yet another installment of Planet of the Apes, but this is no science fiction. In a landmark case, a US court is expected to decide tomorrow whether chimpanzees should be protected by human rights.

An appeals court in New York is to consider whether chimps, our primate cousins, should have the same legal rights as us.

It comes after the not-for-profit organisation, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NRP), launched a legal battle to ensure that Tommy, a 26-year-old chimpanzee, is granted “legal personhood”.

The group believes that Tommy, who performed in a circus before being retired, is being treated inhumanely by being kept in confinement. They add that it is “morally wrong” for the primate to be held in a “small, dark cement cage in a cavernous dark shed” .

The animal rights group is fighting for Tommy to be legally judged as a “cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental right not to be imprisoned”. 

The case opens up all sorts of debates over the rights of animals versus those of humans, and where to draw the line. 

NRP’s spokesperson, Simon Wise, added: “As a matter of both liberty and equality, Tommy should be seen as a person.” 

Mr Wise the group's supporters hope that if the court rules in their favour, Tommy will be moved from his current “cage” to a primate sanctuary in Florida. However the repercussions of such a precedent would be much wider than simply Tommy's living arrangements. 

The group already saw its case thrown out in December last year by a lower court, but the presiding judge was still sympathetic to their cause.

When giving his ruling, Justice Joseph Sise said of Tommy’s case: “You make a very strong argument. However, I do not agree with the argument only insofar as (habeas corpus) applies to chimpanzees.

“Good luck with your venture. I’m sorry I can’t sign the order, but I hope you continue. As an animal lover, I appreciate your work,” the judge added.

The appeals court will make a decision on Wednesday

Questions for your class

  1. Describe three reasons why you think Tommy the chimp should, or shouldn’t, be sent to a Florida sanctuary.
  2. Is it ever morally acceptable to keep an animal in a cage? Explain your answer.
  3. If you were to give five basic rights to animals, what would they be?
  4. Do you think other animals show intelligence and emotions? Give examples.

Related resources

Comparing primates

Explore differences and similarities between human and chimpanzee chromosomes with this learning pack from the Living Links Research Centre.

Development of human rights

Introduce key concepts behind human rights with this image-rich presentation.

Human rights and charity

Encourage students to discuss and debate the importance of human rights.

The Human Rights Act

Demonstrate the real impact of the Human Rights Act with this card-sort activity.

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