Chimp sues for freedom in New York court

Chimp chat: Legendary primatologist Jane Goodall bonds with an ape acquaintance.

An American lawyer has filed a case on behalf of a captive chimpanzee. He claims that the ape should be legally considered a person. Should intelligent animals have rights of their own?

This week a New York court filed a writ concerning a highly unusual case. Tommy, it explained, was a 26-year-old male living in a shed in a suburban trailer park, where he is locked up every day with nothing but a television and a handful of toys. The court was called upon to set Tommy free.

In normal circumstances this would be an open-and-shut case. Habeas corpus (or bodily liberty) is one of the oldest and most fundamental rights in American and British law, and imprisoning someone without trial is a blatant violation of this right. But Tommy is no ordinary plaintiff: he is, in fact, a chimpanzee.

This writ is not a joke or publicity stunt. The lawyer who filed it is a respected academic and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, and his meticulously prepared case could change the course of legal history.

‘Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed,’ the writ states, but ‘a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.’ In short, chimpanzees are people too.

The case for chimps’ personhood is not easily dismissed. In the past 50 years scientists have shown that these great apes can invent tools and pass knowledge down through generations. They have complex personal relationships, sophisticated ways of communicating and emotions easily recognisable to a human being. They respond to the music we love, laugh at comic situations and remember events from the distant past. In one area at least chimpanzees are even smarter than humans: their short-term memory makes us look like airheads.

This does not make chimpanzees human, of course. But then campaigners are not arguing that they should have the same rights: ‘Human rights are for humans,’ the Nonhuman Rights Project says. ‘Chimpanzee rights are for chimpanzees. Dolphin rights are for dolphins.’ But all of these highly intelligent animals are to some extent people, they argue. As such they deserve legal rights of their own.

Planet of the apes

The idea that animals can be people will strike many as simply absurd. Chimps, dolphins and elephants might be surprisingly smart, they say, but the richness of our language, culture and thought puts us in a league of our own. The only ‘people’ on this planet are human beings.

Sure we are unique, say campaigners for nonhuman rights – but not as unique as we like to think. ‘There isn’t a sharp line dividing humans from the rest of the animal kingdom,’ says pioneering zoologist Jane Goodall. ‘It’s a very wuzzy line, it’s getting wuzzier all the time as we find animals doing things that we in our arrogance used to think were just human.’ There are degrees within ‘personhood’, in other words – and it is not a human monopoly.

You Decide

  1. Can a nonhuman animal be a ‘person’?
  2. ‘Future generations will be as horrified by the way we treat animals as we are by our own ancestors’ treatment of slaves.’ Do you agree?


  1. Hold a mock court case in which a member of your class is accused of violating the rights of a pet. Present arguments for and against and then put the verdict to a vote.
  2. Pick an intelligent animal like an ape, whale, dolphin or elephant. Make an illustrated report into its psychological abilities. Based on your research, describe what rights you think it should have.

Some People Say...

“We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realise that we are apes.’Richard Dawkins”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are you suggesting my hamster might be a person?
Not quite! The Nonhuman Rights Project doesn’t think all animals should be given legal rights, only those with very sophisticated intellects and emotions. If the law recognised these beasts as ‘persons’, it would have to treat them very differently.
How come?
National and international legal codes imbue all people with certain fundamental rights. This ensures that people are treated as autonomous agents rather than objects which can be used for the benefit of others. Animals are a different matter: while their welfare is sometimes protected by specific laws, they are legally treated as objects to be traded and used. So giving a chimpanzee rights would radically alter its legal status.

Word Watch

A formal notice of legal action.
Habeas corpus
Latin for ‘you may have the body’, this right ensures that nobody can be kept prisoner without being brought before a judge. It can be traced back to Medieval England and is now enshrined in legal systems all over the world. Tommy’s lawyer has cited as a precedent a successful habeas corpus writ in an 18th century slavery case.
Invent tools
The tools apes use vary from region to region, suggesting that different populations have developed different ‘material cultures’.
Ways of communicating
Not only do apes have their own complex communication system, including names for individual animals: they can also learn human language surprisingly well. A chimp’s vocabulary can stretch to hundreds of words and they have been known to put these words together to create new meanings.
Short-term memory
In an experiment testing how well they can remember where numbers are placed on a computer screen, chimps achieve nearly 100% accuracy in scenarios where intelligent humans can barely manage 10%. Psychologists suggest that humans may have shed this ability to ‘make room’ for others, such as long-term memory and abstract thought.
Jane Goodall
According to her biographer, Jane Goodall is ‘the woman who redefined man’. Her 45-year-long observations of chimpanzees have blown away conventional beliefs about human uniqueness and revolutionised our understanding of apes.

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