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Court Ruling: Chimpanzees Are Not Legal Persons
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Tommy the chimp should not be granted legal rights, an appeals court has ruled.

Summary: A New York appeals court has ruled that a chimpanzee should not have legal “personhood.”

According to, yesterday, a New York appeals court ruled that a pet chimp who goes by “Tommy” does not have the same legal rights that a human does. The court further ruled that Tommy does not have to be released from the cage he lives in.


The appellate panel, comprised of three judges, ruled unanimously to deny the chimp a writ of habeas corpus, as well as “legal personhood.” A writ of habeas corpus aims to protect persons from being held against their will.

Here’s an article from last year about the case.

Clearly, Tommy did not file the complaint. The Nonhuman Rights Project advocates for legal rights for animals, and brought the case to a trial in 2013. The organization’s concern was that Tommy’s environment was akin to one being in solitary confinement. According to the complaint, Patrick Lavery, Tommy’s owner, is holding Tommy against his will, and Tommy should be free to live out his days in a wildlife sanctuary. The court ruled in 2013 that Tommy would not be granted personhood, but a lawyer with the Nonhuman Rights Project, Steven Wise, appealed the ruling.

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Yesterday’s opinion was seven pages long. The panel opined that no precedent existed for considering animals as people, and that there was no legal basis to do so. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the legal definition of personhood involves rights and the ability to perform duties.

The decision read, “Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions. In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights—such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus—that have been afforded to human beings.”

Here’s an article from October about Wise’s fight for Tommy.

The plaintiffs based their case on the fact that chimpanzees are of high intelligence, and that they fit the concept of what the court considers a person. Expert testimony presented revealed that chimps have advanced cognitive abilities and can understand the past and anticipate future events and “suffer as much in solitary confinement as would a human being.”

In Switzerland, free legal representation was denied to animals.

Wise argued that Tommy was a legal person, but that human rights were not being sought on behalf of Tommy. “’Personhood’ is the legal word, but it’s not synonymous with human,” he explained.

Wise is working on a similar case involving a chimp named Kiko. A decision is expected to be made early next year.

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