Caged Chimp Is a Legal Person, Habeas Petition Asserts

By Brett Snider, Esq. on December 03, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A New York chimpanzee is involved in a strange legal battle for both his freedom and personhood under the law.

Tommy is a captive chimpanzee who lives in a cage in Gloversville, New York. But counsel for The Nonhuman Rights Project Inc. have filed a legal petition challenging his imprisonment in state court, The New York Times reports.

How can Tommy the chimp claim to be a legal person?

Writ of Habeas Corpus Is No Monkey Business

On Tuesday, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on Tommy's behalf, demanding that the court both acknowledge his rights as a person and also remove him from his current captivity, reports the Times.

The writ of habeas corpus, also called the "great writ," is a court order which calls for the legal justification for a prisoner to be held captive. Typically criminal convicts make petitions for this writ as a last ditch effort in the appeals process, but it is also been used by detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

In common law it has been used to free slaves, and now animal rights advocates are trying to use it to "free" Tommy.

To be clear, the petition filed Tuesday doesn't demand that Tommy be set completely free. The Nonhuman Rights Project simply requests that Tommy be moved to a primate sanctuary that meets his physical and mental needs.

But in order for the petition to succeed, the court must first recognize Tommy the chimp as a legal person.

Arguing on Tommy's behalf, the Nonhuman Rights Project claims that New York has already recognized animals -- even Tommy -- as legal people under the state's estate law.

New York, as well as several other states, has allowed humans to set up "pet trusts" which can legally designate property or funds for the benefit of non-humans animals during their lives. The Nonhuman Rights Project created a pet trust with Tommy as a beneficiary, which they argue makes him a legal person in the eyes of New York law.

Even if this doesn't extend to Tommy's liberty rights, he probably does have rights to sue in New York court with regard to his trust.

Plus, we've considered corporations as people for more than a century. Could chimps be much worse?

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