Last December, our legal organization filed a lawsuit on behalf of Tommy, who is 26-years-old and is being held in a dank cement cage in a dungeon-like shed. When we last saw him, the only company he had was a TV set. He’s been condemned to a life of solitary confinement.

The only thing he did to deserve this was to be born a chimpanzee.

Half-a-century’s worth of science has proven that chimpanzees are remarkable beings. They’re autonomous and self-determined, and they possess an array of complex cognitive abilities. Yet the law isn’t keeping pace with the scientific discoveries about them. Right now, animal welfare laws require only bare bones of protection for an animal, namely that you provide them food, water and shelter.

But for cognitively complex and social animals, like chimpanzees, animal welfare laws are not doing enough to protect them from exploitation. That’s because they don’t address the core issue – that nonhuman animals are classified as property. They can be bought, sold, and treated in almost any way that their owner sees fit.

My colleagues and I at the Nonhuman Rights Project believe it’s time that common law courts grant at least some nonhuman animals basic fundamental rights. This begins by changing their status from property to “legal person,” an entity capable of having legal rights.

While animals are considered inanimate objects under the law, other entities that are truly inanimate objects have been granted legal personhood. The term “legal person” is not synonymous with being human; it’s not even a biological concept. In the U.S., corporations have been granted legal personhood, and in other common law countries like New Zealand, India and Pakistan, rivers, religious idols and mosques have also been recognized as legal persons respectively.

Using writs of habeas corpus, we have asked the New York common law courts to grant legal personhood status with the fundamental right to bodily liberty to four chimpanzee plaintiffs so that they can be transferred to a sanctuary where they can live the kind of life that’s as close as possible to the wilds of Africa where they belong.

Besides Tommy, the three other plaintiffs are Kiko, who was exploited for years in the entertainment business, and Hercules and Leo, two chimpanzees who are being used in experiments at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Some critics argue that this will open the door to claims on behalf of cows, mice or even cockroaches. But our legal claims are based on what judges have based their decisions on when granting others legal rights throughout history: whether one possesses the characteristic of autonomy.

Autonomy is a characteristic that judges have deemed sufficient when granting legal rights to human beings. If it is sufficient for granting legal rights for human beings, then it ought to be sufficient for the species of animals who also possess the characteristic of autonomy. In our lawsuits, we submitted affidavits from nine of the world’s eminent experts in chimpanzee cognition to attest to the fact that chimpanzees are autonomous and display an array of allied complex abilities. As it stands, we only have the scientific evidence that is needed to advance our legal arguments in a court of law for great apes, elephants, and cetaceans.

On October 8, 2014, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department will hear our appeal in Tommy’s case, which will likely move on to New York’s highest court: the Court of Appeals. The other cases on behalf of Kiko, Hercules, and Leo are also making their way through the court system. If we win, the judicial rulings will only apply to these chimpanzees and not the species as a whole. But that’s how all of this has to work. We must plead our case individual-by-individual. We are planning our next lawsuits on behalf of one or more elephants.

We have spent seven years of strategic preparation to give Tommy and the others the justice they deserve. We are hopeful that these lawsuits are the beginning of the end of the enslavement of extraordinary complex beings who are classified as personal property under our legal system simply because they were born a species other than ours. Until our cases succeed, Tommy will continue to live his life as somebody’s property first, and as a chimpanzee second.