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New lawsuit seeks 'legal personhood' for a chimpanzee

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An animal rights group is taking to the courts in an effort to seek personhood for a chimpanzee. In a lawsuit filed today in Fulton County, New York, the Nonhuman Rights Project demands that "Tommy" — a privately owned chimp who lives on a reindeer farm in the state — be freed from his owners and moved to a sanctuary.

According to the group, they'll also file two additional lawsuits seeking sanctuary for chimps in other parts of the state. Those chimps are Kiko, living at a nonprofit center, and Hercules and Leo, being used for research at Stony Brook University. In all three instances, the group says, the animals are being held captive and, because of key cognitive capacities including the ability to make choices, have a limited right to freedom and cannot be held in captivity. "When we visited Tommy, we found him in a small cage at the back of a dark shed at a trailer sales park," a press release from the Nonhuman Rights Project reads. "Tommy was all by himself — his only company being a TV on a table on the opposite wall."

The animals are being held captive

The lawsuits hinge on the use of habeas corpus, a strategy historically employed in cases of unlawful human confinement (slavery in particular). According to the group, led by legal academic and professor Steven Wise, one does not need to be human in order to merit certain rights — and as such, these chimpanzees are being illegally enslaved by their owners. "This petition asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned," reads the group's court filing, obtained by The New York Times.

"A cognitively complex autonomous legal person."

The move marks a first in the US, but legal proceedings in other countries have sought — and sometimes obtained — certain rights for chimpanzees. Whether or not the case succeeds, it is bolstered by a growing body of scientific findings, which have concluded that chimpanzees boast complex cognitive abilities and profound emotional lives. And while this might be the most extreme effort to change how chimpanzees are perceived and treated, it's also one of several recent high-profile ventures in the same vein: the federal government earlier this year, for instance, announced plans to sharply limit the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research.