Do Chimps Have Human Rights? This Lawsuit Says Yes

Using arguments taken from antislavery efforts, a new lawsuit seeks to give chimpanzees the basic right to freedom

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The lawsuit could fundamentally change how captive chimpanzees are treated

As scientists have studied the chimpanzee, they’ve found more and more similarities between humans and their closest living relatives. But when it comes to the courts, chimps and humans couldn’t be more different. Chimpanzees, like other animals, are not considered persons before the law. Instead, they are considered closer to property, a thing that can be bought and sold, albeit with some oversight by the government — too rarely exercised — in the form of animal-welfare regulations.

Now a lawsuit filed on Dec. 2 in New York State seeks to fundamentally overthrow that distinction. The Nonhuman Rights Group, led by the animal-rights lawyer Steven Wise, filed papers with the state supreme court in Fulton County in New York State on Monday, asking that the courts recognize a captive chimpanzee called Tommy as a legal person with a limited right to liberty. The lawsuit seeks to remove Tommy from his owners in Gloversville, Fla., and place him in a sanctuary. The group says it plans to file additional lawsuits later this week on behalf of a chimp kept in a private home in Niagara Falls, and two other chimps owned by a research center and currently being used in experiments at Stony Brook University in New York State.

(MORE: As Harvard Closes a Primate-Research Center, Are Lab Chimps Becoming a Thing of the Past?)

What’s potentially revolutionary about the lawsuit is that it seeks to extend the concept of habeas corpus to a chimpanzee. Habeas corpus allows someone being held captive to seek relief by having a judge force his captors to explain why he is being held. It’s frequently used in cases alleging unlawful imprisonment, including those of detainees in Guantánamo. The lawsuit makes reference to a famous 1772 English case that dealt with an American slave named James Somerset, who had escaped from his owner in London, been recaptured and was set to be returned from slavery:

With help from a group of abolitionist attorneys, Somerset’s godparents filed a writ of habeas corpus on Somerset’s behalf in order to challenge Somerset’s classification as a legal thing, and the case went before the Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield. In what became one of the most important trials in Anglo-American history, Lord Mansfield ruled that Somerset was not a piece of property, but instead a legal person, and he set him free.

With testimonials from experts like Jane Goodall, Wise makes the case that chimpanzees have qualities that allow them to have the very basic legal right not to be imprisoned. It’s not that chimpanzees are the legal equivalent of human beings. Rather, the court filing — obtained by James Gorman at the New York Times — argues that chimpanzees are enslaved, and that the courts already recognize that slavery is wrong:

This petition asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.

(MORE: Rethinking Your Relatives — the Fossilized Ones)

There have been attempts in the past to extend so-called human rights to nonhuman primates. In 2008, for example, the Spanish parliament approved a resolution supporting the Great Ape Project, which argues that three essential human rights — life, liberty and freedom from physical and psychological torture — should be extended to our closest relatives. But the Nonhuman Rights Project lawsuit would seem to go further, and could potentially open the door for more lawsuits of the sort. That’s assuming, of course, that the courts even decide to hear the petition, although even a denial of a habeas corpus case gets an automatic appeal in New York State. The group’s press release announcing the lawsuit makes the enormous scope of its aims clear:

Our goal is, very simply, to breach the legal wall that separates all humans from all nonhuman animals. Once this wall is breached, the first nonhuman animals on earth will gain legal “personhood” and finally get their day in court — a day they so clearly deserve.

Chimpanzees and their advocates have had a good year so far, with the National Institutes of Health deciding to retire most of the lab chimps owned by the government, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposing to add captive chimpanzees to the endangered species list, which would severely curtail research on the primates. But what is set to unfold in a New York courtroom in the days ahead could fundamentally change how chimpanzees are treated in the U.S. — and force us to reconsider what we think of as “human rights.”

MORE: Why Wild Animals and Hollywood Don’t Mix


This has to be the most ignorant thing I have ever read.

Hi,  I have an issue with giving any other beings the same rights as humans.  Here is my reason.    I am am indigenous human being.   many indigenous peoples haven't got the same rights as HUMAN BEINGS and having  the gall and  ignorance to insist that we give other beings that right is  insulting to me as an indigenous Human Being  and a person.   When all Human Beings have the rights of Human beings then and maybe then we can think about other living things but not until then.  

My cat has more rights than some indigenous people do.  So please think first!!!!!

Kia ora mai ano

Indegenous Human Being! 

LauraReneeWest  'Imagine a legal person as an empty “rights container.” The 

Nonhuman Rights Project is preparing litigation intended to 

persuade a common law high court that a nonhuman animal, like 

a human, is a legal person–a “rights container”–an entity with 

the capacity for legal rights. '   This is a quote from Stephen Wise, the essential "Face" of the Nonhuman Rights Project.

I want to explain something to you. The people who support non-human rights, particularly for non-human apes, want first and foremost to simply give them protection under the law as BEINGS rather than items. Not a SINGLE person that would argue for non-human rights would EVER condone inhumane treatment of human peoples. Indigenous people, though, have rights. Whether or not those rights are enforced is a separate issue. ALL PEOPLE deserve to have rights, and have those rights enforced. Any decent person would argue that abuses suffered by Indigenous humans are just plain WRONG! We AGREE with you-- human rights need to be enforced. Humans need to be protected. The argument that a non-human ape  "is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned" in NO WAY undermines the cause for rights. Human rights, to the people supporting this cause, are fundamental, because they take it a step further. 

It is my own personal belief that the mistreatment of humans even when they are supposedly protected by worldwide legality is the worst type of evil. However, i don't support any cognitively conscious being abused or taken advantage of either. If I could make corruption stop, I'd do it in a heartbeat. If I could enforce the laws granting all humans the basic rights of personhood AND citizenship-- I WOULD. That being said, I cannot turn my head away from another just cause. Humans, genetically, are not even separate species from Chimps. Genetically, we're a third species of Chimpanzee. When someone can speak multiple languages, read, and write, I think deserve to have the same rights as humans, or at the very least, human children.

Do i think the mass slaughter of human beings in the name of war, breaking international laws which the UN has agreed on, is a war crime and deserves said government to suffer the consequences? YESYESYESYESYESYESYES!!!!! Do I think that HUMANS suffering because someone else decided that their happiness, their basic human rights, are a cost worth paying, without their consent, is okay? HELL NO! 

All I want to say to you, is that reading your comment made me feel as if you feel that non-indigenous people don't care. I care very much. I care more than i could ever express to you. However, the fact that i support your very important cause doesn't have to mean i cant support another good cause. Do I, or any other person advocating for non-human rights, prioritize the non-human cause over the human cause? I WOULD NEVER. I support human rights foremost. I just think that humanity is being truly good to all that deserve it. I swear to you that my support for the non-human cause in no way belittles the human cause. Human rights SHOULD be first---I AGREE WITH YOU. I just also support other causes as well. It is a sad world in which we live, that we still need to discuss human rights. They should be a given. I am sorry for any injustices you have endured.

Just please don't judge negatively those who support other causes. We don't have a one track mind.


Because whether or not it's okay to torcher an animal or treat it poorly is contingent entirely upon it's intelligence. It definitely has nothing to do with whether or not they can feel pain.


Learn about koko the talking gorilla ..gorilla can talk and learn hundreds of words so the only diffrance is In her vocal capabilities how she looks and level of inteligance compared to humans.


I don't think they should be tortured, but it shouldn't be taken too far since God gave man dominion over all other creatures.



Ridiculous. There is a continuous spectrum of "cognitive abilities" in animals, from humans down to microorganisms. How could the courts possibly decide that some animals are legal persons and that others are not?


all human children are owned as property, and can be sold as property. personhood does not stop someone from being property. prisoners in jail are still persons, yet they are property of the state and kept in small cages.

all cognitive abilities of all creatures are complex. even fish have complex cognitive abilities. all animals that are wild are also autonomous. all animals feel pain. that doesnt mean that all animals should be persons.

if you can give an animal personhood for their complex cognitive abilities, than you could take away a humans personhood for being stupid.

abusing animals is already a crime. if the living conditions of this monkey make it unhealthy, it will be taken away. putting this monkey in an outdoor reserve is the same as putting it in a larger, dirtier cage. who gets to say how large a cage needs to be? should families that live in small apartments get their kids taken away for not having 50 acres of lawn for them to play in?

if you want to improve the living conditions of this monkey, buy it from the owner and keep it how you like.  if you want to improve the living conditions of all pets, fight to improve animal abuse laws. if you want to be able to marry a monkey, seek mental help. 



  1. great ape noun:  any of several large primates (as the orangutan, gorilla, or chimpanzee) that are either placed in the same family (Hominidae) as humans
  4. i'll just leave this here.


Aren't dolphins considered to be even more intelligent than any non-human primates? I hope there's someone sticking up for them too.


The problem with the legal debate is that it views animals as either property or as deserving of liberty in a human sense. I take the Biblical view that we are to be good stewards of nature. The laws of kashrut were implemented to avoid animal cruelty found in the slaughtering methods of other civilizations. Yet today, vegans, vegetarians and aquatarians might view all animal slaughtering as cruel; and I partly agree. 

In regards to our treatment of animals, we need to recognize a continuum based on both religion's desire to avoid animal cruelty and science's understanding of how animals relate to us in intelligence, emotion and pain. A chicken or turkey, already bred for stupidity and obesity, may not suffer as much as a cow. Cattle have fled slaughter yards, showing that they have a desire to live and an intelligence to see what's coming if they stay. 

Primates are even closer to us. I can imagine a future attempt to uplift our great ape physical relatives as in David Brin's Uplift novels. Whether that succeeds or not depends on not just biological science but whether it's possible in the first place. Many sentimental people who love animals don't realize how much we are reading our own sentience, our own emotions and our own desires into animals that we can train to communicate in limited ways. 

My personal opinion is that apes should not be property and experimented on, but neither should they have the anti-slavery rights of a person. Perhaps a new category is needed? There is one species that has shown benevolence towards humans and has an intelligence that's different but still close to our own that needs protection of personhood; and that is the dolphin. Apes are like us in shape and biological heritage, they are like us in making war and in libertine sexuality; but it is dolphins that seem much more like us in intellect and possibly even spirituality. The same could be said for the whales. 

Keep in mind though, that as people fight for the rights of animals, they fight against the rights of newborn humans, supporting in academic journals and in state hearings alike for the "post birth abortion" of unwanted newborns. Whether those newborns are handicapped or healthy, the slippery slope we are on is not good.

Concern for the well being and the nascent rights of other species that are like us should not lead to the lack of concern for the human rights of those of our species who are the most helpless. An almost early 20th century style eugenics is finding an accord with animal rights. It is certainly a brave new world that I hope doesn't last long. I'd like to see both good stewardship with rights for animals based on their position on the spectrum without losing rights for human beings made in God's image who are most in danger today.


Apparently humanity has matured enough for us to ask in a non-trivial way, “Are human beings the only persons we encounter?”

Historically, we have only recognized others who share our human embodiment as fellow persons. This matters legally, morally and ethically since people are granted rights, privileges and protections that are not offered to non-persons.These rights, privileges and protections are subject to revision. We no longer allow one person to be the property, the slave, of another person. 

If we recognize animals other than our own species as persons, asking whether we are holding some of them in slavery is a legitimate question. 


Our brains are fundamentally the same as every other mammal in existence.  Pain and joy, thoughts and  emotion.  

Is there a sentient being inside those mammals, fearing the pain and torture that their masters inflict upon them?  You can see it in the face of a dog that has been abused.  They know.  

Getting over ten thousand years of animal slavery is going to be much harder than it was to get over human slavery(which incidentally is still quite common).  


As unbelievable as it may sound, fact is that it truly is a groundbreaking act.  I can only imagine the arguments from both sides.  Consider what it may possibly lead to with respect to other animals, including the ones we take for granted, like parrots, dogs, cats, then there's the farm animals and those of burden like horses and ox. What about the ones we eat? Most of these creatures do have emotions, like fear, love, etc. Think of the treatment they endure under our captivity and no one to turn to for assistance in redress.  Can you even begin to imagine yourself in that position? Yeah, this is going to be a very interesting case.