MANHATTAN (CN) - With renowned primatologist Jane Goodall on their side, an indefatigable group of animal-rights activists renewed their as-yet-unsuccessful fight to release a movie-star chimpanzee to a sanctuary on the Florida coast.
Kiko, a 29-year-old chimp, is believed to have lost his hearing because of beatings from his trainer on the set of "Tarzan." He has spent the last 23 years as one of the star attractions at The Primate Sanctuary, a nonprofit group on the U.S. side of Niagara Falls.
Attorney Steven Wise, who has argued for three years for Kiko's release, said in a phone interview that his visit to the sanctuary showed it to be little more than a "cement storefront in a crowded residential area."
Wise also worries about the conditions of Kiko's captivity because the only other chimp at the sanctuary, Charlie, was marketed as a "Karate Chimp" before he died in late 2013.
Though the sanctuary's owner Carmen Presti declined to comment on the new lawsuit, he defended his organization in a profile in the Buffalo News that depicted him as a primate rescuer seeking to move his operation to a 30-acre facility near Lake Ontario.
For activists at the Nonhuman Rights Project, chimps like Kiko are akin to human prisoners and the group has tried to make state court judges come around to their point of view by filing several writs of habeas corpus.
In 2013, the group lost their litigation to free Kiko and his fellow chimpanzee Tommy, who is being held in a private facility about an hour's drive from Albany.
The appeal of Tommy's case was rejected by New York's Appellate Division, Third Department on the grounds that chimpanzees do not have the ability to shoulder "duties and responsibilities."
In September, the Nonhuman Rights Project gathered Goodall and five other primatologists from around the world to undermine that finding, including James Anderson in Japan, Christophe Boesch in Germany, William McGrew in the United Kingdom, and Mary Lee Jensvold and Emily Sue Savage-Rumbaugh in the United States.
Goodall, a Brit whose groundbreaking studies make her widely regarded as the world's foremost expert, told the court that there is "ample proof from studies of chimpanzee behavior, both in the wild and in captivity, that chimpanzees have well defined duties and responsibilities."
In her 9-page affidavit , Goodall spoke of the "many and often onerous" duties a chimpanzee mother takes on in rearing her young, while the adult males collectively protect the infants of their community.
Juvenile chimps have their own set of responsibilities, and unrelated chimps have been spotted adopting orphaned infants, according to the affidavit.
With Goodall on their side, the Nonhuman Rights Project tried to reopen Tommy's case in December and filed their latest habeas suit on behalf of Kiko on Friday.
On Dec. 23, Judge Barbara Jaffe rejected the group's attempts to reopen Tommy's case on that basis for failure to cite a "ground that is sufficiently distinct" from the original petition.
Undeterred, Wise said that Kiko's case highlights the new evidence that Jaffe may have missed.
"We think there's a possibility that she didn't realize that 60 percent of the facts that we set out are new," he said.
Wise said that the Nonhuman Rights Project chose New York for their litigation because habeas law here, unique among the 50 states, allows them to file as many cases as it takes them to win. He said that the string of defeats has not discouraged him because the group already won on key issues of standing that paved the way for an unprecedented hearing last year.
"People will always call us quixotic, but eventually we're going to win," he said.
Meanwhile, a new documentary on the group will take their efforts to the court of public opinion this month.
Legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker - whose film "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" captured a defining moment in the career of now-late glam-rock icon David Bowie - will premiere his chronicle of the litigation, "Unlocking the Cage," at Sundance on Jan. 25.
The film, which features footage from inside Manhattan Supreme Court last year, hits theaters on June 27 before running on HBO on July 11.