By Natalie Prosin
Our plaintiff did not walk into our office; he couldn’t. He is being held captive in solitary confinement in a small, dank, cement cage in a dark shed in temperatures 40 degrees below his native land. Our plaintiff is a chimpanzee named Tommy. Day in and day out Tommy lives a life of isolation in the back of a used trailer lot in Gloversville, New York, far from Africa where he has never been and will never get to go. He is unable to do the things that are natural to chimpanzees. He cannot build a nest, socialize with others of his own kind, or forage for food.
It isn’t difficult to recognize from a moral or philosophical perspective that Tommy has an interest in not being confined under these conditions. But one’s awareness that Tommy’s situation is not ‘right’ is in another sense meaningless because Tommy, like any number of cognitively complex, self-aware nonhuman animals, is not a being whom the law recognizes as having any legal rights. What Tommy’s ‘owners’ are doing has been considered legal since the advent of our legal system and well before. Over the years, thousands of lawsuits have been filed trying to protect the interests of animals, but the fundamental paradox plaguing all of these cases is that the legal system does not recognize that a nonhuman animal has the capacity for any legal right at all. Animal welfare laws are without teeth when it comes to Tommy’s exploitation because our legal system sees Tommy only as an object of ownership; a mere piece of property that can be bought and sold, used for almost any purpose and, to a very large extent, treated in any way that his ‘owner’ sees fit. Legally speaking, Tommy is less than an animal; he is a thing, with about as much claim to justice as an inanimate object.
This week the Nonhuman Rights Project has filed a series of lawsuits in the New York Supreme Court arguing that Tommy is not a piece of property but rather a legal person with the legal right to bodily liberty. This right protects the most fundamental interests of a being. Legal personhood determines who or what counts in the eyes of the law. If you are not a legal person, then you are considered, legally, a thing. Things exist for persons, while persons exist for themselves. Legal things are invisible to civil law judges.
We are arguing that Tommy is being detained in violation of his right to bodily liberty and that he should be released to a reputable sanctuary. There he will live out his days with many other chimpanzees in an environment as close to the wild as possible. We have filed additional lawsuits on behalf of all the known chimpanzees in New York State, including Kiko, a chimpanzee who was exploited for years in the entertainment business, and Hercules and Leo, two chimpanzees being used in experiments at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. We had intended to include three other chimpanzees in our lawsuits, but within the past eight months they all died before we could give them their day in court. More....