By Charles Siebert
Just before 4 p.m. on Oct. 10, Steven Wise pulled his rental car in front of a multiacre compound on State Highway 30 near the tiny Adirondack hamlet of Gloversville, N.Y., and considered his next move. For the past 15 minutes, Wise had been slowly driving the perimeter of the property, trying to get a better read on the place. An assortment of transport trailers — for horses and livestock, cars, boats and snowmobiles — cluttered a front lot beside a single-story business office with the sign “Circle L Trailer Sales” set above the door. At the rear of the grounds was a barn-size, aluminum-sided shed, all its doors closed, the few small windows covered in thick plastic.
With each pass, he looked to see if anybody was on the grounds but could find no one. A number of times Wise pulled off the road and called his office to check whether he had the right place. It wasn’t until he finally spotted a distant filigree of deer antlers that he knew for certain. The owner of Circle L Trailer, Wise had read, runs a side enterprise known as Santa’s Hitching Post, which rents out a herd of reindeer for holiday events and TV spots, including commercials for Macy’s and Mercedes-Benz.
After spotting a man tightening bolts on one of the trailer hitches, Wise paused to explain his strategy to me and the documentary filmmaker Chris Hegedus, who had a video camera. “I’m just going to say that I heard their reindeer were on TV,” Wise said. “I happened to be driving by and thought I might be able to see them in person.”
The repairman told Wise that the owner wasn’t on the premises that day. Wise mustered as many reindeer questions as he could, then got to his real agenda.
“So,” he finally asked, doing his best excited-tourist voice. “Do you keep any other animals around here?”
“Yeah,” the man answered, nodding toward the aluminum-sided shed. “In there. Name’s Tommy.”
Inside the shed, the repairman inched open a small door as though to first test the mood within. A rancid milk-musk odor wafted forth and with it the sight of an adult chimpanzee, crouched inside a small steel-mesh cell. Some plastic toys and bits of soiled bedding were strewn behind him. The only visible light emanated from a small portable TV on a stand outside his bars, tuned to what appeared to be a nature show.
“It’s too bad you can’t see him when he’s out in the jungle,” the repairman said, pointing to a passageway nearby, which opened onto an enclosure that housed a playground jungle gym. “At least he gets fresh air out there.”
Tommy’s original owner, we learned, was named Dave Sabo, the one-time proprietor of a troupe of performing circus chimps. The repairman said that Sabo raised Tommy, who appears to be in his 20s, from infancy. Sabo, who had been living for a number of years in a trailer on the grounds of Circle L Trailer, recently died.
“He’s back in there now somewhere,” the repairman said, quickly tracing with his hands what seemed to be the outline of an urn of ashes. “In a room next to Tommy’s.”
On the way back out to the car, Wise paused.
“I’m not going to be able get that image out of my mind,” he said, his voice quavering. “How would you describe that cage? He’s in a dungeon, right? That’s a dungeon.”
Seven weeks later, on Dec. 2, Wise, a 63-year-old legal scholar in the field of animal law, strode with his fellow lawyers, Natalie Prosin, the executive director of the Nonhuman Rights Project (Nh.R.P.), and Elizabeth Stein, a New York-based animal-law expert, into the clerk’s office of the Fulton County Courthouse in Johnstown, N.Y., 10 miles from Circle L Trailer Sales, wielding multiple copies of a legal document the likes of which had never been seen in any of the world’s courts, no less conservative Fulton County’s.
Under the partial heading “The Nonhuman Rights Project Inc. on behalf of Tommy,” the legal memo and petition included among their 106 pages a detailed account of the “petitioner’s” solitary confinement “in a small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed”; and a series of nine affidavits gathered from leading primatologists around the world, each one detailing the cognitive capabilities of a being like Tommy, thereby underscoring the physical and psychological ravages he suffers in confinement.
Along with chimps, the Nh.R.P. plans to file similar lawsuits on behalf of other members of the great ape family (bonobos, orangutans and gorillas) as well as dolphins, orcas, belugas, elephants and African gray parrots — all beings with higher-order cognitive abilities. Chimps were chosen as the first clients because of the abundance of research on their cognitive sophistication, and the fact that, at present, there are sanctuaries lined up to take in the plaintiffs should they win their freedom. (There are no such facilities for dolphins or orcas in the United States, and the two preferred sanctuaries for elephants were full.)
“Like humans,” the legal memo reads, “chimpanzees have a concept of their personal past and future . . . they suffer the pain of not being able to fulfill their needs or move around as they wish; [and\ they suffer the pain of anticipating never-ending confinement.” What Tommy could never have anticipated, of course, huddled just up the road that morning in his dark, dank cell, was that he was about to make legal history: The first nonhuman primate to ever sue a human captor in an attempt to gain his own freedom.
Animals are hardly strangers to our courts, only to the brand of justice meted out there. In the opening chapters of Wise’s first book, “Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals,” published in 2000, he cites the curious and now largely forgotten history, dating at least back to the Middle Ages, of humans putting animals on trial for their perceived offenses, everything from murderous pigs, to grain-filching rats and insects, to flocks of sparrows disrupting church services with their chirping. Such proceedings — often elaborate, drawn-out courtroom dramas in which the defendants were ostensibly accorded the same legal rights as humans, right down to being appointed the best available lawyers — were essentially allegorical rituals, a means of expunging evil and restoring some sense of order to a random and disorderly world.
Among the most common nonhuman defendants cited by the British historian E. P. Evans in his 1906 book, “The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals,” were pigs. Allowed to freely roam the narrow, winding streets of medieval villages, pigs and sows sometimes maimed and killed infants and young children. The “guilty” party would regularly be brought before a magistrate to be tried and sentenced and then publicly tortured and executed in the town square, often while being hung upside down, because, as Wise explains it in “Rattling the Cage,” “a beast . . . who killed a human reversed the ordained hierarchy. . . . Inversion set the world right again.”
The practice of enlisting animals as unwitting courtroom actors in order to reinforce our own sense of justice is not as outmoded as you might think. As recently as 1906, the year Evans’s book appeared, a father-son criminal team and the attack dog they trained to be their accomplice were prosecuted in Switzerland for robbery and murder. In a trial reported in L'Écho de Paris and The New York Herald, the two men were found guilty and received life in prison. The dog — without whom, the court determined, the crime couldn’t have been committed — was condemned to death.
It has been only in the last 30 years or so that a distinct field of animal law — that is laws and legal theory expressly for and about nonhuman animals — has emerged. When Wise taught his first animal-law class in 1990 at Vermont Law School, he knew of only two others of its kind in the country. Today there are well over a hundred. Yet while animal-welfare laws and endangered-species statutes now abound, the primary thrust of such legislation remains the regulation of our various uses and abuses of animals, including food production, medical research, entertainment and private ownership. The fundamental legal status of nonhumans, however, as things, as property, with no rights of their own, has remained unchanged.
Wise has devoted himself to subverting that hierarchy by moving the animal from the defendant’s table to the plaintiff’s. Not in order to cast cognitively advanced beings like Tommy in a human light, but rather to ask a judge to recognize them as individuals in and of themselves: Beings entitled to something that, without us, no wild animal would ever require — the fundamental right, at least, not to be wrongfully imprisoned. More....