Why You Gotta be So Rude? Don’t You Know [a Chimp] Is Human, Too?: Tommy’s Claim of Personhood

Andrea Reed, KLJ Staff Editor

A case for giving basic human rights to nonhuman primates is making its way through the New York court system.

On December 18, 2014, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed a motion for permission to appeal their case to New York’s Court of Appeals on the heels of the New York State Appellate Court, Third Judicial Department’s, ruling that Tommy the chimpanzee “is not a ‘person’ entitled to the rights and protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus.”[1]

This case started last December, when four captive chimpanzees made history as the first nonhuman primates to sue their captors for the right to not be imprisoned illegally.[2] Previous advocates had worked rigorously to pass and enforce legislation protecting animal rights, such as the anti-cruelty statutes and the Endangered Species Act[3], but never before had a group brought a lawsuit seeking to apply legal human rights to nonhuman primates.

The NhRP changed that with their representation of Tommy and three other primates in lawsuits against their New York captors, a research facility. As the first and only legal organization doing this type of work, the NhRP’s mission is to change the legal status of select nonhumans animals from “‘mere things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.”[4]

So far their goal has been met with disappointment as all of New York’s lower courts have dismissed the case on the grounds that chimpanzees are not humans.[5]

The NhRP argues that the New York Court of Appeals recognizes that ‘chimpanzees exhibit highly complex cognitive functions-such as autonomy, self-awareness, and self-determination, among others—similar to those possessed by human beings,’ and that it is thus time for the common law to recognize that these are sufficient to establish legal personhood.[6]

While this case—and the very idea of animals as persons—is extremely controversial, “an ever-expanding body of observational, neurological, and genetic evidence about animal intelligence and behavior is forcing [the courts] to reconsider the age-old boundary between ourselves and other creatures.”[7]

Tommy’s “owners” have until January 2nd to reply to NhRP’s motion for permission to appeal. And if the appellate court denies their appeal, NhRP will file a motion in the Court of Appeals directly, asking the court permission to appeal to it. Natalie Prosin, Executive Director of the NhRP, stated that “The issues in this ground-breaking case are novel ones that should be decided at the highest judicial level possible. We hope we are granted permission to appeal to the Court of Appeals so that we can give Tommy his day in court.”[8]

One wonders when one might file a similar lawsuit for horses.


[1]In “Tommy” Case, NhRP Seeks Appeal to New York’s Highest Court, Nonhuman Rights Project (Dec. 18, 2014), http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/2014/12/18/in-tommy-case-nhrp-seeks-appeal-to-new-yorks-highest-court/.

[2] Charles Siebert, Animals Like Us, Popular Science, Jan. 2015, at 54.

[3] See generally, A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANIMAL LAW, PART II (1985 – 2011) Joyce Tischler, A Brief History of Animal Law, Part II (1985 – 2011), 5 Stan. J. Animal L. & Pol’y 27 (2012).

[4] Press Release re. NhRP Lawsuit, Dec. 2nd 2013, Nonhuman Rights Project (Nov. 30, 2013), http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/2013/11/30/press-release-re-nhrp-lawsuit-dec-2nd-2013/.

[5] In “Tommy” Case, NhRP Seeks Appeal to New York’s Highest Court, supra note 1.

[6] Appellate Court Decision in Tommy Case, Nonhuman Rights Project (Dec. 4, 2014), http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/2014/12/04/appellate-court-decision-in-tommy-case/.

[7] Sibert, supra note 2.

[8] In “Tommy” Case, NhRP Seeks Appeal to New York’s Highest Court, supra note 1.