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Tuesday, June 11, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Rejects Habeas Petition for Tommy the Captive Chimpanzee

JOHNSTOWN, N.Y. (CN) - A New York state judge wished an animal rights group well, but said he would not recognize a chimpanzee as a legal person who can file a habeas corpus petition for release from captivity.

"Good luck with your venture. I'm sorry I can't sign the order but I hope you continue. As an animal lover, I appreciate your work," Fulton County Supreme Court Justice Joseph Sise said after an hourlong hearing .

Attorneys for The Nonhuman Rights Project, of Coral Springs, Fla., petitioned the court on behalf of Tommy, a 26-year-old male chimpanzee. They wanted him transferred from a private owner to a primate sanctuary.

The request for a writ of habeas corpus "is an attempt to extend existing New York common law for the purpose of establishing the legal personhood" of Tommy, the complaint states, "and granting him immediate release from illegal detention."

New York law recognizes the right of domestic animals to be named beneficiaries of trusts, according to the complaint, and courts have granted legal personhood to corporations.

So it's not a stretch that the humanlike cognitive and language abilities of chimpanzees are "sufficient to establish common law personhood and the consequential fundamental right to bodily liberty," the complaint states.

"This petition asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned."

The defendants are Patrick and Diane Lavery, who sell transport trailers near Gloversville in rural Fulton County, about an hour west of Albany. The couple also operates a reindeer farm, Santa's Hitching Post.

Patrick Lavery told The Daily Gazette in Schenectady that he rescued Tommy about a decade ago from a man who used the chimp and others in animal performances but could no longer care for them.

The Nonhuman Rights Project claims Tommy is kept "in solitary confinement in a small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed," on the Laverys' property.

Patrick Lavery denies that. He told the Gazette the chimp lives in a large cage with lights, a television and toys.

The Nonhuman Rights Project says it has worked for nearly two decades to change the legal status of animals from "things" to "persons." It has filed habeas petitions for three other chimpanzees, in Niagara and Suffolk counties.

The group said on its website that it sought to file habeas petitions on behalf of seven captive chimpanzees in New York, but three of them died this year. Of the four remaining, Tommy and a chimp in Niagara County are owned privately; two others are used in research on locomotion at Stony Brook University on Long Island. They are owned by a research center in Louisiana.

Affidavits submitted by primate scientists, detailed in the Fulton County complaint, claim chimpanzees "possess the complex cognitive abilities that are sufficient for common law personhood and the common law right to bodily liberty."

The most important of those is autonomy, which the complaint says involves abilities such as language, decision-making, emotional learning and self-awareness.

At the hearing before Justice Sise, Steven Wise, an attorney and president of the animal rights group, focused on autonomy, a transcript shows.

Asked by Sise whether he wanted the court to recognize chimpanzees over other animals and things as persons, Wise answered, "Partly so, your honor."

"We are asking that this court recognize that chimpanzees have what it takes for legal personhood within the meaning of the habeas corpus statute, which is autonomy, self-determination, self-agency, the ability to choose how to live their lives. That's what we're asking."

Wise said that Tommy "already has certain kinds of rights" because the Nonhuman Rights Project established a trust for him under New York's so-called Pet Trust statute, for future care at a primate sanctuary.

"We created it for him. He owns the corpus of his trust. He can sue," Wise said.

Wise appeared at the hearing pro hac vice with attorney Elizabeth Stein of New Hyde Park.

Sise called their arguments "impassioned" and "quite impressive."

But, he said, "The court will not entertain the application, will not recognize a chimpanzee as a human or as a person who can seek a writ of habeas corpus."

The group said its petitions for writs were denied in Niagara and Suffolk counties, too.

Wise said appeals are planned.

"These were the outcomes we expected," he said in a statement. "All nonhuman animals have been legal things for centuries. That is not going to change easily."

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