Tommy, 26, lives in an upstate New York trailer park, and loves watching cartoons. He’s currently at the center of a curious legal battle for one reason — he’s a chimp.
A group called the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) submitted a lawsuit aiming to have Tommy recognized as a person under the law, so he might be allowed better living conditions. The chimp is currently kept in “small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed,” according to the legal brief submitted by the NhRP.
Tommy himself is blissfully ignorant of the intense legal battle looming over his well-being. The case could have radical implications for the very nature of civilization’s most basic understanding of rights.
Tommy stays in “a small cage in a small room that is part of a very large edifice,” according to attorney and NhRP president Steven Wise, behind Circle L Trailer Sales in Gloversvilles, New York, a site also home to Santa’s Hitching Post, which rents out reindeer during the Christmas season.
More than three years ago, the site held as many as six chimps, including Tommy, primarily used for entertainment purposes. Now Tommy is all alone in the warehouse, surrounded by ten empty cages, his only company provided by a TV propped up on the opposite wall.
While Wise claims Tommy’s living conditions are subpar, his owner Patrick Lavery insists Tommy is comfortable where he is, saying “he’s got a lot of enrichment,” with access to TV, cable, and stereo. Lavery, who said he and his wife have owned chimps for decades, also told the Daily Mail that the supposedly small cage was actually a $150,000 enclosure with a door to the outside.
“He likes being by himself,” he added.
Tommy’s controversial case is currently being heard by a mid-level state appeals court in Albany. The NhRP argues that New York state law does not limit legal personhood to human beings, as the state has previously extended rights of personhood to corporations and domestic animals.
The suit, it should be noted, doesn’t claim that chimps are human beings, but simply entitled to legal rights of personhood, citing research by great apes experts that chimps are “autonomous, self-determined, self-aware, highly intelligent, emotionally complex.”
“Not long ago, people generally agreed that human slaves could not be legal persons, but were simple the property of their owners,” Wise told USA Today. “We will assert, based on clear scientific evidence, that it’s time to take the next step and recognize that these non-human animals cannot continue to be exploited as the property of their human owners.”
Wise draws several comparisons between treatment of chimps and slaves in the suit. He referred to an English case in 1772 which ruled that fleeing American slave James Somerset was a person rather than a thing and thus set him free.
Lavery has waived his right to make an argument in court, and Wise asked the court to transfer Tommy to the 120-acre North American Private Sanctuary Alliance in Florida. A court in Rochester, New York will hear a similar case from Wise in December, relating to a chimp named Kiko.