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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Lawsuit to free chimps not that crazy

When I first heard about the lawsuit filed by the animal rights group the Nonhuman Rights Project on behalf of a chimpanzee in Mayfield, I thought it was completely bonkers.

Nonhuman Rights Project? Personhood for chimps? Perhaps I take things too literally, but I think it’s fairly obvious that chimps are not humans, even if they possess some human traits.

And the judicial system appears to agree.

Earlier this week, the Nonhuman Rights Project lawsuit was thrown out, along with petitions filed on behalf of three other chimps. The animal rights group was hoping to secure the chimps’ freedom on habeas corpus grounds; a writ of habeas corpus is used to bring a prisoner or detainee before a court to determine whether their captivity is justified.

But the lawsuits are about much more than the four chimps.

The Nonhuman Rights Project’s ultimate goal is to have an animal declared a person in a court of law, which would be a watershed moment in the small-but-growing animal rights movement. In a Boston Globe essay this summer, the group’s president, Steven Wise, argued it is time to grant some animal species fundamental rights, and they should be treated as individuals, rather than property.

“For 30 years, I’ve been an animal slave lawyer,” Wise told the Globe. “I want to be an animal rights lawyer.”

Now, I like animals and want them to be happy. But I balk at the idea of extending personhood to animals. And I don’t like the fact that Nonhuman Rights Project sees the plight of animals as analogous to slaves.

Perhaps I take things too literally, but while there’s no question slaves are human, the same can’t be said of chimps, even if they are smart, social creatures who possess distinctly human traits, such as self-awareness and the gift of abstract thought.

What I support are legal protections for animals, rather than rights.

And I generally take a dim view of people who keep exotic animals. Owning a tiger or a monkey is the sort of thing that seems cool when you’re 10, but completely absurd by the time you’re a teenager. So when I learned of the Nonhuman Rights Project lawsuit, I was inclined to agree with the group’s overall assessment that Tommy, the chimp in Mayfield, would be happier at a sanctuary with other chimps than alone in his enclosure.

Curious to hear what Tommy’s owner might have to say, I got in touch with Patrick Lavery, who owns Circle L Trailers and a reindeer farm. Lavery disputed the Nonhuman Rights Project’s description of Tommy’s living situation as “solitary confinement in a small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed.”

“Our facility is licensed through the federal government,” he said. “He’s got a good home. He’s got a cage that’s 70 feet long, at 70 degrees. His TV goes on and off. His lights go on and off. He’s got toys.”

Lavery has owned 11 chimps. The majority were rescued from a man who raised chimps for performance but eventually became unable to care for them, he said. Today, only Tommy remains, as the others have been relocated to zoos and sanctuaries. Lavery estimated Tommy is about 36 years old and said he appeared in the 1987 film “Project X.” He said his goal is to send Tommy, who has been with him for about a decade, to live in a sanctuary, as well, but it’s been difficult to find one with room for another chimp.

“A big problem with chimps is that you can’t get anyone to take them,” Lavery said. “I’d be all for having chimps always be in the wild, but once they’re in captivity they could never survive in the wild. Somebody has to take care of them.”

I was glad to hear this, because it suggests Lavery understands the difference between rescuing exotic animals and acquiring them for more dubious reasons. That said, I’d be interested in seeing Tommy’s living quarters and hearing a primate expert evaluate them; Lavery said he is happy to show off Tommy’s home, but tours will have to wait until spring, when he returns from Florida.
The Nonhuman Rights Project plans to appeal its case to the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court.

“Whatever happens at this next level, this is just the beginning of a long campaign,” the group wrote on its website.

This is not an empty promise. The NhRP has a base of support and a well-thought-out plan of attack. Also, public opinion is shifting. Fulton County state Supreme Court Justice Joseph M. Sise might have rejected the NhRP’s habeas corpus petition, but he praised the group’s effort.

“Good luck with your venture,” he said. “I’m sorry I can’t sign the order, but I hope you continue. As an animal lover, I appreciate your work.”

Most of us aren’t quite ready to redefine chimps as people. But Sise’s comments make me wonder whether one day we will be. The world is full of animal lovers, after all.

The NhRP lawsuit might sound crazy. But maybe it’s not as crazy as I initially thought.

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