ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - Animal-rights activists hoping to improve the life of a caged chimpanzee lost their bid in New York today to have an appeals court consider the chimp a person.
The Nonhuman Rights Project of Coral Springs, Fla., had fought for such a determination in the hopes of bringing a habeas corpus petition for Tommy the chimp, on the grounds that a family in upstate New York was detaining the creature unlawfully.
Patrick and Diane Lavery had taken Tommy in about a decade ago after the chimp's previous owner no longer could care for it. The Laverys, who live near Gloversville, about an hour west of Albany, own a transport-trailer business and operate a reindeer farm.
Tommy was 26 years old when the project filed suit last year. The group equates the cage Tommy where the Laverys keep Tommy to solitary confinement, and wants the animal moved to a chimpanzee sanctuary.
A judge in Fulton County shot the group's request down, however, and a three-member panel of the Appellate Division's Third Judicial Department considered the case this past October.
The court noted Thursday that there is no precedent for treating animals as persons entitled to rights and protections for the purposes of habeas corpus.
It found it more detrimental to the project's cause, however, that there is an implicit agreement between a society and its members in which rights come with social responsibilities.
"Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions," Presiding Justice Karen Peters wrote for the court. "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 rights - such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus - that have been afforded to human beings."
Not up for debate, the seven-page opinion notes, is whether the Laverys "are in violation of any state or federal statutes respecting the domestic possession of wild animals."
"According to petitioner, while respondents are in compliance with state and federal statutes, the statutes themselves are inappropriate," Peters wrote "Yet, rather than challenging any such statutes, petitioner requests that this court enlarge the common-law definition of 'person' in order to afford legal rights to an animal."
Though the court declined to do so Thursday, it did note that other avenues for relief remain open to the project.
"Thus, while petitioner has failed to establish that common-law relief in the nature of habeas corpus is appropriate here, it is fully able to importune the Legislature to extend further legal protections to chimpanzees," Peters wrote.
In support of its habeas petition, the project had supplied the court with affidavits from various experts, testifying to attributes of chimpanzees that could qualify them "as 'persons' for the purposes of their interest in personal autonomy and freedom from unlawful detention," the decision states.
"Collectively, these submissions maintain that chimpanzees exhibit highly complex cognitive functions - such as autonomy, self-awareness and self-determination, among others - similar to those possessed by human beings," Peters wrote.
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