Advocates of Caged NY Chimps Lose Habeas Appeal

Tommy, the Nonhuman Rights Project’s first client, is seen here in this still from a documentary called “Unlocking the Cage.”
(Photo via PENNEBAKER HEGEDUS FILMS on Kickstarter)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Ruling against a group that seeks personhood recognition for chimpanzees, a New York appeals court refused Thursday to free a pair of caged primates.

The Nonhuman Rights Project argued in a 2015 petition that Circle L Trailer Sales keeps a chimp named Tommy in a cage at a warehouse in Gloversville, New York, while the cage holding Primate Sanctuary’s Kiko is in a cement storefront, in a crowded residential area in Niagara Falls.

Past attempts at freeing the chimps have proved unsuccessful: the Nonhuman Rights Project has brought habeas complaints on behalf of the chimps and two others, Hercules and Leo, all across the state.

The group’s latest defeat came from a five-judge appellate panel in Manhattan. Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Troy Webber noted that the new expert testimony that the project claims to have obtained is just more of the same: “that chimpanzees exhibit many of the same social, cognitive and linguistic capabilities as humans and therefore should be afforded some of the same fundamental rights as humans.”

But precedent has already established that humanlike capabilities are not enough.

“The asserted cognitive and linguistic capabilities of chimpanzees do not translate to a chimpanzee’s capacity or ability, like humans, to bear legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions,” Webber wrote. “Petitioner does not suggest that any chimpanzee charged with a crime in New York could be deemed fit to proceed, i.e., to have the ‘capacity to understand the proceedings against him or to assist in his own defense.’”

Richard Cupp, a Miami-based professor who filed an amicus brief in the case, noted that this lack of legal standing is precisely why prosecutors have never gone after any of the chimps that have caused death or serious injury to humans.

Webber found the challenger’s reliance on corporate personhood similarly unavailing.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed corporate personhood in a 1886 tax case, Webber noted that “the underlying reasoning was that the corporation’s property was really just the property of the individual shareholders who owned the corporation, and therefore should be protected in the same manner.”

Webber also took issue with the relief that the group seeks for Tommy and Kiko — transfer to a primate sanctuary in Florida.

“Seeking transfer of Kiko and Tommy to a facility petitioner asserts is more suited to chimpanzees as opposed to challenging the illegal detention of Kiko and Tommy does not state a cognizable habeas claim,” the ruling states.

Webber called the position of the group laudable but says it is one best left to the Legislature.

The Nonhuman Rights Project has said it will take its case to the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

“We remain confident that Tommy’s and Kiko’s fundamental right to bodily liberty will be recognized as a matter of justice so that they too may experience the freedom they so desperately deserve,” the group’s founding attorney, Steven Wise, said in a statement. “Public opinion has begun to tilt in our favor since we started filing these lawsuits, likely as a result of them.”

The Nonhuman Rights Project tells the stories of its nonhuman clients on its website.

Kiko, believed to be in his 30s, is a former animal actor. The group says abuse he suffered on the set of the made-for-TV movie “Tarzan in Manhattan” has left him partially deaf.

Tommy, also believed to be in his 30s, is credited by his former owner as having appeared as “Goliath” in the 1987 film “Project X.”

The Nonhuman Rights Project was represented by Stein in New Hyde Park, New York.

The group’s founder, Wise, teaches courses on animal-rights jurisprudence at the Lewis and Clark Law School and Vermont Law School.

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