Lawyers with the Nonhuman Rights Project haven’t had much luck in court with their recent attempt to get four New York chimpanzees defined as people under the law.
Last month, the group filed three lawsuits over four chimpanzees across the state, including 26-year-old Tommy, who reportedly lives in a cage behind the Circle L Trailer company on Route 30 in Fulton County. The group demanded the chimpanzees be released into a primate sanctuary on habeas corpus grounds. Such a move by the courts would have set precedent for other primates to be treated as persons under the law.
Judges in state Supreme Court in three separate counties promptly denied all three motions. Now the group has embarked on a lengthy appeals process it hopes will be more successful. In a recent email, longtime animal rights activist Michael Mountain said the Nonhuman Rights Project filed notices of appeal Friday in all three counties.
“Each lawsuit has a separate appeal,” he wrote. “Since the chimpanzees reside in three different judicial departments, there could easily be three different rulings from the three different appellate courts.”
Tommy’s case will eventually land in the Third Judicial Appellate Division Court in Albany. According to a clerk there, a judge might not see the appeal for more than a year, so the group has nine months to perfect its arguments. Then the defendants — in Tommy’s case, Pat and Diane Lavery, owners of Circle L Trailers, a small herd of reindeer and one chimpanzee — will have 45 days to respond. Then it could take months more for the paperwork to land before a panel of judges.
In the end, the group hopes for a more chimpanzee-friendly outcome than the decisions made in lower courts.
Last month in State Supreme Court in Fulton County, project lawyer Steven Wise argued the human qualities and mental capacity of chimpanzees before Justice Joseph Sise. Wise called them autonomous creatures, arguing they should not be confined alone in a cold damp cage, as he alleged Tommy was kept.
“Your impassioned representations to the Court are quite impressive,” Sise responded, according to transcripts. “The Court will not entertain the application, will not recognize a chimpanzee as a human or as a person who can seek a writ of habeas corpus. … Good luck with your venture.”
According to Mountain, judges in the other counties handed down similar rulings. The group expected as much, and in part chose to make its stand in New York because of its automatic right of appeal in habeas corpus petitions.
Mountain couldn’t detail the exact arguments they plan to bring to the appellate courts, but said it centers on the issue of “legal personhood” and whether a chimpanzee qualifies.
In the case of Kiko, a Niagara County chimp also involved in the lawsuits, Wise even asked the judge to clarify that he was denying the motion based upon chimpanzees not being people.
“As I understand it, this is important because we want the appeal to be focused on this question,” Mountain said.
The appeals will move forward, but if judges don’t see great merit to the cases, they could deliver a ruling based upon records from the lower courts. In that case, Wise wouldn’t get another chance to argue the case of chimpanzee intellect.
The Laverys could not be reached for comment Wednesday.