Chimps Aren't People—for Now

Tommy, a 26-year-old caged chimpanzee, has been denied the right to personhood and habeas corpus, but not for the reasons you might think.

Sergio Moraes/Reuters

Like the green wire-mesh cage that confines him, Tommy the chimpanzee is deemed “property,” not a person. A New York State appeals court made that clear last week when the five-judge panel denied a 26-year-old ape personhood and release from his enclosure.

The ruling is the latest setback for the animal rights group, Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), in its battle to grant Tommy a writ of habeas corpus. Attorney Steven Wise, founder of the NhRP, has argued that chimpanzees qualify for legal personhood because they are autonomous, intelligent, and self-aware. “Both as a matter of liberty and a matter of equality, you can’t say that an autonomous person doesn’t have any rights simply because he is a chimpanzee,” Wise told  Wired. “He is remarkably like us, and he suffers like us.”

But to Wise's dismay, the court argued that because chimpanzees cannot bear legal duties or be held accountable for their actions, they couldn’t receive personhood. Unlike humans and corporations, which can recognize the law and choose whether or not to abide by it, chimpanzees cannot know the law and cannot choose to follow or go against it. As such, chimpanzees cannot be held responsible for their actions under the law, and they cannot be given personhood.

“In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal right— such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus—that have been afforded to human beings,” Judge Karen Peters wrote in a statement.

Tommy the 26-year old chimp was denied "personhood" by a New York State Appeals Court. (Pennebaker Hegedus Films)

Some legal experts welcomed the ruling. “The court nailed it,” Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, who advocates against personhood for animals, said in an e-mail to Science. “The decision directly addressed the arguments for nonhuman animal legal personhood, and demonstrated clearly why they are wrong.”

Tommy's owner, Patrick Lavery, said he was pleased with the case's outcome. Lavery holds Tommy alone in a warehouse on his reindeer ranch, but insists that his family has taken good care of the retired circus performer for the past 10 years. “Tommy’s got an excellent home, and he never knew what it was like to have a home where he was loved and cared for before,” Lavery said to The Guardian. But the NhRP believes that Tommy would be better off at a primate sanctuary in Florida. Lavery told the Associated Press that he expected the outcome of the appeal and was pleased by it. “I just couldn't picture any court granting habeas corpus for an animal,” he said. “If it works for one animal, it works for all animals. It would open a can of worms.”

Although worms aren't one of the creatures that NhRP is fighting for, the group has identified several animals such as elephants, whales and dolphins, that deserve personhood. They argue that emerging research has reshaped how scientists recognize these animals' intelligence and emotions, and that the law to protect them should evolve as such. The NhRP said it will now take its appeal to the state's highest courts in an effort to free Tommy.