In an effort to forcibly remove Tommy the chimpanzee from his human owners, animal rights advocates fought to have the animal declared a legal person. But on Thursday, a New York appeals court ruled unanimously against the case.
Attorney Steven Wise argued that animals with high intelligence deserve basic human rights, despite the fact that they don't actually belong to the species. Chimps are a logical first step as humanity's closest relatives in the animal kingdom, but the court saw granting the animal rights of personhood as a slippery slope. For Tommy, the right in question is freedom from unlawful imprisonment with his owners in Gloversville, N.Y.
According to Wise, Tommy is kept in a small, dark cage inside a warehouse-like structure. He used to have other chimps t0 keep him company but now lives alone with just a TV to distract him, Wise said.
Tommy's owners, Patrick and Diane Lavery, say the chimp is perfectly content.
"He's really got it good," Patrick Lavery told the Albany Times Union in October. "He's got a lot of enrichment." Lavery has said that the cage is actually spacious, is safe and has access to an outdoor area.
In fact, the lawsuit didn't actually have anything to do with Tommy's living conditions. Wise didn't allege that the Laverys had broken any state laws in their treatment of Tommy, but rather that the laws allowing them to keep the chimp in captivity shouldn't exist at all.
The lawsuit, which was filed by an advocacy group called the Nonhuman Rights Project, isn't the first of its kind -- but none have yet been successful.
Wise wanted Tommy to be taken to a chimp sanctuary. Studies have shown that chimps raised in captivity can suffer long-term ill effects, and owners often have to give them up once the animals become fully grown and sometimes violent. So the goal of limiting chimps as pets is probably a noble one, but can it be achieved by declaring chimps as people? It seems that pill may be too tough for lawmakers to swallow.
"If you're right, then no chimpanzee could be held in a zoo in the United States," Justice Stephen Lindley said at the proceedings for another, similar trial, where Wise represented a chimp named Kiko, on Tuesday. Lindley also wondered whether dolphins could be kept captive if Tommy's personhood was granted, given the marine mammals' intelligence.
And indeed, that's Wise's goal: He's stated that if he succeeds in his chimp trials, he'll seek freedom for elephants, dolphins, orcas and other primates. But he's not saying he'll throw open the gates to every zoo at once.
“One of the judges asked, ‘If we rule in your favor, does that mean we have to let all chimps out of zoos?'” Wise told WIRED after the proceedings. “I said no, you wouldn’t necessarily have to. But there are zoos, and there are zoos. The question is: Wherever a chimp is being kept, is his autonomy and self-determination being respected?”
Unfortunately, we can't know how Tommy feels about the latest ruling. We can only hope that his owners are right in saying that he loves his home and enjoys watching cartoons.