Is a Chimpanzee Entitled to Legal Rights?

Posted by Joyce Tischler, ALDF's Founder and General Counsel on December 2, 2013


chimp-CC-Dhammika-Heenpella-article-image2That is the tantalizing question being posed by the Nonhuman Rights Project and its founder, Steven Wise. The legal vehicle Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project have chosen is a petition filed today with a New York court, demanding the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus for Tommy, a chimpanzee detained “in solitary confinement in a small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed…” This lawsuit argues that Tommy is being unlawfully detained and denied his liberty, and that the purpose of a common law writ of habeas corpus is to deliver a being like him from unjust and illegal restraint.

For most Americans, chimpanzees are still just hairy clowns, trained through brutal tactics to jump up and down and make funny faces in movies and television commercials. They sort of look like us, but not enough to prick our collective conscience. So, we laugh at them, and few of us seriously consider their plight. Chimpanzees have been used, exploited, tortured, and killed for a wide variety of human desires: as moneymakers in entertainment, as subjects of research and testing, and as dangerous play “things” for people who wish to keep them in their homes and yards. I have written previously about our blind adherence to using chimpanzees as if they were mere “things.”

An End to the Dark Era

Yet, developments in the past decade have signaled a new consciousness. Research on chimpanzees has been banned or severely limited in the U.K., New Zealand, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, Japan, Austria, Spain and Belgium, and as of 2010, the European Union has banned it. The Spanish Parliament passed a resolution supporting a grant of legal rights to Great Apes in 2008, the same year that international pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline publicly stated that it would no longer use chimpanzees in laboratory testing. In 2011, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine announced that chimpanzee use is no longer necessary for most biomedical research, and in 2013, the National Institutes of Health, once the major supporter of medical research and testing on chimpanzees, announced that most of the chimpanzees it owns will be retired from medical research and sent to sanctuary.

This is truly heartening, but still a far cry from a court of law recognizing a chimpanzee as a “legal person.” To be a “legal person,” one doesn’t need to be a human being or even a biological being. A corporation is a legal person. “Legal personhood” is a fiction, used to recognize one who has legal rights and duties. It’s one of our most powerful concepts, and American legal history is filled with heated conflicts about whether or not slaves, women, children, Native Americans, corporations, and human fetuses would be considered “legal persons.” This and the ensuing lawsuits by the Nonhuman Rights Project and Wise mark the opening volley in a battle that may well change how we view and treat nonhuman animals.

The Nonhuman Rights Project has given the court a virtual ton of scientific findings about the capacities of chimpanzees. We can no longer ignore the evidence that chimpanzees experience love, hate, fear, and grief, or that they are self-aware, have language, strong social and familial bonds, and a wide variety of other capacities which clearly identify them as beings, not things. Will a court of law find that a chimpanzee is a legal person? The answer may depend, in part, upon whether the judge focuses on the similarities or the differences between chimpanzees and humans. If a judge sees only the differences, then it is unlikely that s/he would recognize the legal rights of chimpanzees. If the similarities rule, then the question becomes, why not?

I’m proud that Animal Legal Defense Fund has done some of the foundational work noted in the Nonhuman Rights Project’s pleadings for the writ of habeas corpus. Working with the Commissioners of the Uniform Trust Code, ALDF helped to change trust law throughout the U.S. and create valid legal trusts for animals, and additionally, we drafted and litigated the first trust for chimpanzees so that it was recognized by courts of law in New York and Washington State, In re Fouts, 677 N.Y.S. 2d 699 (N.Y. Sur. Ct. 1998).

This new chapter will not be decided quickly or easily; it will take enormous effort and resilience from all us working to create legal rights for animals. I leave you with one of my favorite quotes, as I applaud our colleagues at the Nonhuman Rights Project for breaking this new and historic ground:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight, I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

~Rev. Theodore Parker, Unitarian minister and abolitionist, 1858. 

21 thoughts on “Is a Chimpanzee Entitled to Legal Rights?

  1. penny says:


    1. Laura beth says:

      Yes they can, they scream and cry and struggle, like a rape victim or person begging not to be murdered. The robots doing the violence, like any other sociopath, devoid of empathy, does not hear or feel any longer.

  2. Judith Murphy says:

    All animals have rights, just because they cant talk does not mean theyre worthless and they cant feel, they have souls like humans, they love and feel like humans…..

  3. Karen Longworth says:

    They think, they feel pain, they know fear. That right there should be enough reason for them to have rights.

  4. Judy says:

    All animals should have right to live safely on this planet.Stop animal abuse!

  5. Susan Baguiao says:

    Why can we NOT leave anything alone, what is wrong with us, we are the smartest, i don’t think so.

  6. Flor de Maria Rubinos says:

    I applaud Ms. Murphy’s previous statement & I also applaud & wish ALDF much success with its pursuit for justice. All animals deserve protection & merit rights! Again, much success in your endeavor ALDF!!!

  7. Cecelia Shannon says:

    Every animal is entitled to Legal Rights.

  8. Diana Lee says:

    Of cours the chimpanzee should be entitled to legal rights.

  9. Lorie Obradovich says:

    It’s a shame this question even has to be posed. ALL CREATURES should have rights. It is only human arrogance to think otherwise.

    1. Lisa says:

      I agree that it is just human arrogance/ignorance to think that since the animals do not speak in OUR language, they are ok with how they are being treated. Abuse and confinement is literally what it is……there is no other interpretation for it! A slave for entertainment is still a slave!!

  10. Michele Domingo says:

    All beings deserve, need and should be FREE. It is an innate feeling in humans, chimpanzees and all living things. Keeping something trapped is beyond cruel, it is criminal.

  11. brigitte hoin says:

    ich bin dagegen

  12. Connie says:

    Why is he in solitary confinement? This is terrible, all of it!

  13. Valerie Margaret Cooper says:

    All animals are entitled to rights and compassion. They are living creatures with souls and spirits, like humans. They are actually better because they are not cruel as humans are. Grant them rights now. I am their voice and always will be. Stop abuse to animals now.

  14. son parte de la creación y se merecen el mismo respeto que el hombre…..

  15. Mary Frantz says:

    I have never understood why humans feel that they are at the top. That we have the right to take any other being and do with it what we will. My personal belief is that we are all the same. We all have feelings, family, friends, love and hate. We all communicate. People think that animals don’t communicate, but that’s because we don’t understand them. Anyone with a beloved pet will tell you that they communicate loud and clear.
    It’s quite possible they every species thinks they are the one on top, and that we are the ones walking around clueless without the capability of communicating effectively, which I think we have proven that to be correct.

    All the beings of the world deserve to be protected.

  16. Nadia says:

    Who said humans are at the top? Just because humans are smarter and rule the planet doesnt mean they can abuse animals. Humans believe that they are at the top of the world so they abuse animals and perceive them differently, in a negative way. A chimpanzee doesnt deserve to be abused by humans. All animals should have rights. They have no voice so good humans have to speak for their rights.

  17. damian says:

    no al maltrato animal

  18. Sarah Luick says:

    Thank you Joyce for this moving blog on this remarkable effort of the NhRP and Steve Wise. It is an exciting time to be involved with Animal Law as we hope these NhRP lawsuits can lead to recognition of legal personhood for these chimpanzees and then lead the way to the day when the interests of all nonhuman animals can be recognized, respected and protected within our legal system.

  19. MARTHA TOSETTO says:

    Menos mal que los EEUU se creen los mejores del mundo.Con ésto están demostrando que que no son tan adelantados y que las leyes que tienen son bastante malvadas y crueles con los animales.Espero tengan un poco de piedad y recapaciten dejando libre al chimpancé para llevarlo a su habitat natural.

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