It was somewhere between running a used trailer lot and a reindeer rental business that Pat Lavery first came across Tommy the chimpanzee ten years ago.
Believed to be around 16 years old at the time, the primate had endured a life in the entertainment business. He was kept in a plywood cage so cramped that he could not even stand, a shelter made filthy as he was forced to crawl and shuffle in his own waste.
Lavery and his wife, who already kept other rescued chimpanzees on their property in Gloversville, New York, some 30 miles northeast of Schenectady, took him in. Over the years, Tommy grew in confidence and settled into his new digs, which came complete with a jungle play area, cable television, a stereo system, and an all-you-can-eat supply of fruit and vegetables.
“I’ve never been to a sanctuary that’s as nice for a chimp as my place. It’s like a Kindergarten classroom—walls painted with flowers and trees, washed and cleaned and sanitized daily, temperature controlled, cartoons on the TV…” said Lavery.
So it came as something of a surprise to Lavery to discover Monday that Tommy, the chimpanzee to whom he has extended his hospitality and an endless supply of bananas for the last decade, had sued him in New York’s Supreme Court.
The first-of-its-kind lawsuit seeks a writ of habeas corpus, a legal tool used to challenge a person’s imprisonment or detention. It demands Tommy’s immediate release from “illegal detention” and transfer to any of the seven refuges that form the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance—making the 26-year-old chimp the first non-human animal to demand legal rights under common law.
Acting on Tommy’s behalf is The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), an organization on a mission to have animals recognized in law not just as “things,” but as “persons” with the right—among others—to “bodily liberty.”
The non-profit comprises legal experts and respected primatologists including Jane Goodall, considered the world’s leading authority on chimpanzees, and has crafted its case based on scientific testimony regarding the complex cognitive abilities of the species and the utter inappropriateness of confinement.
“Chimps are autonomous, they self-determine their own lives, they are extraordinarily social, self-aware beings—behaviors and characteristics that qualify them as persons with a fundamental right to freedom,” said Steven Wise, the founder and president of the NhRP, for whom the case is the culmination of 30 years of practice in the field of animal protection law.
Tommy’s lawsuit, in which the animal is named as a petitioner represented by the NhRP, is the first of three such cases being filed in New York county courts on behalf of four chimps.
Papers will be filed in Niagara Falls Tuesday for Kiko, also 26, who lives in a cage at the home of a couple who rescued her from the entertainment industry—a career that cost her the ability to hear after she was beaten for biting an actor during filming of a Tarzan movie. On Wednesday, a third suit will be filed in Suffolk County on behalf of Hercules and Leo, two chimps owned by the New Iberia Research Center and used for locomotion studies at Stony Brook University.
Further down the pipeline, Wise intends on suing on behalf of captive chimpanzees on a state-by-state basis, and following suit on behalf of other self-aware, autonomous species, including whales, dolphins, elephants and great apes.
“This is not just a one-off. These are the first cases we are filing as part of a long-term strategic litigation campaign that stretches probably for the rest of my life and beyond,” he says.
Lavery takes issue with the lawsuit’s description of Tommy’s housing as a “small, dank cement cage in a cavernous dark shed.” But whatever the differing descriptions or perceptions, the NhRP takes wholesale issue with Lavery, or any other private owner, retaining chimpanzees in anything less than the conditions that North America’s biggest and best sanctuaries can offer, and more suited to their social and physical needs.
The lawsuits cite scientific evidence of chimpanzees’ acute cognitive abilities, such as awareness of the past, anticipation of the future, creativity, and decision-making. They display complex emotions such as empathy, use tools, construct diverse cultures.
“Chimpanzees possess a sense of self that developmentally emerges in a manner similar to humans and is highly stable over time. They recognize themselves in mirrors and on television and can use a flashlight to examine the interiors of their own throats in a mirror. Adult chimpanzees recognize photos of themselves as youngsters,” the papers state, citing affidavits from multiple scientists.
“Like humans, chimpanzees have a concept of their personal past and future and suffer the pain of not being able to fulfill their needs or move around as they wish,” the court papers state, adding: “Like humans, they experience the pain of anticipating never-ending confinement.”
Lavery says that Tommy’s cage meets U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements and that he has tried for years to find places for the chimp in sanctuaries but that they “always say they’re full.” He has previously found homes for other rescued chimps in zoos, “but most say they’re a bunch of juvenile delinquents they just don’t want around.”
“I’m not just some Joe Blow who’s got a chimp locked up in the garage. Of course, I think they should live in the wild, but the sad fact is that not all of them do and that’s where people like me come in, spending $100,000 of my own money to help out and buying monkey chow by the ton.”