Landmark New York Case To Decide If A Chimp Is A Person

October 10, 2014 | Rhett Jones

Albany is currently debating an appeal to give a chimpanzee the right to personhood. Specifically, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NRP) hopes that the courts will award a 26-year-old chimpanzee named Tommy the right to not spend the rest of his life alone in a small cage.

Founder of the NRP, Steven Wise tells Wired, “Both as a matter of liberty and a matter of equality, you can’t say that an autonomous person doesn’t have any rights simply because he is a chimpanzee,” he said. “He is remarkably like us, and he suffers like us.”

Wise argued his case before a judge this past December, but was shot down based on his legal arguments, not the value of the case. The judge concluded, “I’m sorry I can’t sign your order, but I hope you continue.”

The crux of Wise’s case rests on the definition of a legal person, and thus far he’s argued that slaves were not considered people before abolitionists worked to change that. The Justice hearing the case began by reading the definition of a person according to Black’s Law Dictionary, that entries first words are, “A human being.”

Wise presented briefs by nine primatologists stating that “chimpanzees are deeply self-aware and self-determined, capable not only of pleasure and suffering, but of anticipating the future, remembering the past and making conscious choices about their lives.” He could have also added they’re capable of taking selfies.

Further complicating matters, the Judge is dubious over Wise seeking to move Tommy to a wildlife sanctuary in Florida. Legally that wouldn’t necessarily be a recognition of autonomy so much as it would be moving the plaintiff from a small cage to a big cage. Of course that could also just be a philosophical argument. In the words of Ray Bradbury, “Insanity is relative. It depends on who has who locked in what cage.” (Photo: Wikimedia)