Chimpanzee Not a Person, NY Court Declares

Published January 27, 2015

An attempt by the animal rights group Nonhuman Rights Project to have Tommy the chimpanzee granted “legal personhood” failed in a New York appellate court in early December.

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) had sued to free Tommy from captivity, claiming the chimp deserved the human right of bodily liberty. However, in Nonhuman Rights Project v. Lavery an Appellate Division panel unanimously ruled a chimpanzee cannot bear the legal duties or responsibilities of a human being and thus is not entitled to the corresponding rights afforded to people.

No Responsibilities, No Rights

Unlike human beings, chimps cannot submit to societal responsibility or be held legally accountable for their actions, Presiding Justice Karen Peters noted in her opinion.

The incapability to bear legal responsibilities and societal duties renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights afforded to human beings, she explained.

Instead of fighting for rights for chimpanzees, the court noted NhRP could push for increased legal protections for the animals by advocating for stricter animal-welfare laws.

Animal-Rights Fight Continues

Will Coggin, director of research at the Center for Consumer Freedom, says although NhRP is smaller than PeTA or the Humane Society, it is very dedicated to pursuit legal status for animals.

The NhRP’s mission statement says the organization works through education and litigation to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere “things” to “persons” who possess rights such as bodily integrity and bodily liberty.

“What they are trying to do is wrong. They are already doing this in Switzerland, where pet lawyer Antoine Goetschel put a man on trial for not reeling in a fish quickly enough. You can see where this would impact all areas of the law very quickly and flood the courts with frivolous lawsuits,” Coggin said.

“They will keep trying as long as they continue being funded. The irony is the NhRP claims to speak on behalf of the animals, yet they are all trained in the field of law, not veterinary medicine. They claim to have the animals’ welfare at heart, but they come from the city, not farms,” Coggin noted.

Effort Spanning Decades

Ron Arnold, executive vice-president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, says the effort to give rights to nature began in the courts during the 1980s in the aftermath of Christopher Stone’s 1972 book, Should Trees Have Standing?

“This old argument fortunately has never prevailed in the United States. However, lawyers have begun representing all sorts of animals, and we have seen a flood of lawsuits in the state courts. History is clearly on the side of chimps remaining chimps, but if NhRP had [prevailed], it would have opened the floodgates and allowed such potential cases as farm animals suing farms,” Arnold said.

“Unfortunately, these sorts of cases will not stop until the courts start dismissing them with prejudice and subjecting them to fines and penalties, including paying the opposing side’s legal fees,” Arnold added.


Nonhuman Right Project v. Lavery: