I am an attorney for two chimpanzees, Tommy and Kiko. Unlike most attorneys, I have spent no time with my clients, because they are “owned” by people in upstate New York, held captive without the company of other chimpanzees in an environment radically different from their natural habitat.
Thursday, with the support of other lawyers and supporters across the globe, I will argue before a New York appeals court that Tommy and Kiko are legal “persons” with the fundamental right to bodily liberty. We will argue that, as autonomous beings, they have the right to be released from captivity and sent to an appropriate sanctuary.
Chimpanzees communicate with humans using sign language and computers. They make and use tools, have the capacity to imagine, understand the past and plan for the future, are aware of their environments, recognize themselves in mirrors, and take care of orphaned baby chimpanzees. In captivity, they can experience depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Our legal claims are based on the best scientific findings on genetics, intelligence, emotions and social lives of these animals showing they are self-aware, autonomous beings.
Chimpanzees are not the only animals who are autonomous and self-aware. Gorillas cry when they are sad. Elephants mourn other elephants in their herd when they die. The size of a dolphin’s brain, compared to their body size, is second only to humans. All of these animals are aware of their environments and recognize themselves in mirrors. We are in the midst of planning litigation on behalf of elephants and dolphins as well.
In court, we aren’t arguing chimpanzees should have the same rights as humans. We are arguing that courts must recognize them as “persons” with the capacity for fundamental rights appropriate to the kind of beings that evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience unequivocally tell us they are. They are not legal “things,” though this is how they’re currently viewed and treated. And legal personhood is not about biology, but rather, public policy, as a lower court agreed in another of our chimpanzee rights cases.
Tommy lives in a cage without companionship, with only a television and a radio to entertain him. To treat him as a thing destroys him in the same way we would be destroyed in solitary confinement. The solution is to place him and Kiko in sanctuaries with other chimpanzees where they will be safe.
Once a wild nonhuman animal is taken from the wild, placed in captivity and forced to depend on humans for food and shelter, a return to the wild can be very difficult if not deadly. Chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins and whales are social, territorial nonhumans, relying on family and community to exist in their natural habitats.
Without a social structure and community, he or she will have a difficult time surviving, which is particularly threatening for wild nonhuman animals born in captivity. But it is our duty to do right by these animals.
When Tommy and Kiko are finally recognized as legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty, they will be able to live freely at Save the Chimps in Fort Pierce, Florida in an environment as close to chimpanzees’ natural habitat as is possible in North America. With 190 acres, including twelve three-acre islands, it’s the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in the world, providing a home to 257 chimpanzee residents—all of whom have, in one way or another, suffered at the hands of humans because of their legal thinghood.
Recognition of Tommy’s and Kiko’s rights will mean—for them—a long awaited freedom to live their lives as they choose in an environment that honors their autonomy
The argument itself will mark an important milestone in the evolution of how we view and treat other animals, culturally and legally. These changes are well underway, as we saw most recently in 2016 when an Argentina judge recognized a captive chimpanzee as a “non-human person” based on similar arguments we’ve made in New York courts since 2013.
As the HBO documentary “Unlocking the Cage” makes clear, animals like Tommy and Kiko—undeniably cognitively and emotionally complex—should not live, indeed cannot truly live, in cages. For three decades, I have been fighting for the legal rights of nonhuman rights. Tommy and Kiko have suffered for almost as long. For these beings, and all who share their plight, having their day in court is a victory in itself, though they will never know it. All they will know, in the end, is that they are free. It’s for us humans—inside and outside courtrooms—to ensure this happens.
Wise is president of the Nonhuman Rights Project.