A US animal rights group has filed what it said is the first lawsuit seeking to establish the "legal personhood" of chimpanzees.
The non-profit Nonhuman Rights Project has asked a New York state court to declare a privately owned 26-year-old chimp named 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 state is unlawful and demands his immediate release to a primate sanctuary.
Chimpanzees "possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they're found in human beings", said group chairman Steven Wise. "There's no reason why they should not be protected when they're found in chimpanzees," he added.
The lawsuit is among three the group is filing on behalf of four chimps across New York. The other chimps are Kiko, a 26-year-old chimp living on a private property in Niagara Falls, and Hercules and Leo, two young males used in research at Stony Brook University on Long Island.
Tommy's owners, Patrick and Diane Lavery, and Stony Brook University did not return requests for comment. Kiko's owners could not be reached.
The Nonhuman Rights Project used its own research to find the chimps, and Wise first visited Tommy in October after reading a local newspaper article about exotic animals kept at the Laverys' used-mobile-home lot in Gloversville, New York.
"He looked terrible," said Wise, who has seen healthy, wild chimps in Uganda. "He looked like a caged chimpanzee - they don't move, they don't look at you. They look depressed."
The lawsuit states that chimps are entitled to a "fundamental right to bodily liberty", which Wise said was the basic right to be left alone and not held for entertainment or research.
In 2007, the Nonhuman Rights Project began a nationwide search for an optimal venue to file the lawsuits, Wise said. New York was chosen because of its flexible view of requests for a writ of habeas corpus, the centuries-old right in English law to challenge unlawful detention.
David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law and an expert on animal law, said it was the first habeas petition filed on behalf of an animal. "The focus here is whether a chimpanzee is a 'person' that has access to these laws," he said.