Court: Tommy the chimp is not a person

A chimpanzee in upstate New York has lost his court battle claiming unlawful imprisonment based on the premise that he is protected by the writ of habeas corpus.

Wait… what?

Tommy the chimpanzee is not a person, according to a New York appeals court.

A Florida group’s efforts to free a chimpanzee fell short on Thursday when the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in Albany upheld a lower court’s decision that found that such animals aren’t entitled to basic legal rights.

“Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their action,” Presiding Justice Karen Peters wrote in the seven-page decision.

“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.”

Tommy was actually named as a plaintiff in the case, which probably sank it before it began. After all, the Constitution is pretty clear about the whole idea of “human rights” and such. This entire effort was part of a larger move by the Nonhuman Rights Project and similar groups to expand the definition of rights under the legal system beyond the boundaries of just humans. There are actually some good intentions underlying ideas such as this, but unfortunately this is simply not the way to go about it.

I’ve been very active in animal welfare activities over the years, but I’ve been careful to always look at it (and refer to it) as animal welfare, and not animal rights. The entire idea of “rights” is a human construct, and animals have no more “rights” than those we choose to assign to them. That may sound brutal, but it’s the way of the world. Whether you approach the question in terms of man winning the evolutionary race to the top or simply a mandate from Genesis 1:28, it’s our world and we make the rules.

But by the same token, I still feel it’s important to show kindness and have empathy, particularly in the case of animals we have essentially “created” (as in domesticated dogs and cats, as well as highly modified livestock) and which don’t have a natural place in the food chain. The chimps and the rest of the great apes are a different case, but a very troubling one. I can’t look at a chimp and see the same “dumb animal” as when I observe, for example, a fish. Their ability to learn sign language and the emotions they show tell me that while they are not humans, they have mental capabilities not far off from ours.

Chimps really should not, in my opinion, be locked up in labs and used for science experiments for their whole lives. And locking them in small cages for our entertainment isn’t much better. It would be nice to see Tommy in a large preserve – or even better, released into his native habitat in Africa if it were feasible – but trying to assign him human rights in a court of law is not how that’s going to happen.

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