Should Animals Be Able To Sue Their Owners?

One group of lawyers thinks so--and vows not to quit until they succeed.

Caged animal

Tommy the chimpanzee, kept in a small cage near Gloversville, N.Y.Nonhuman Rights Project

Tommy, a chimpanzee in upstate New York has become the first non-human primate to sue its captor, in an effort to become free. But it's not like the chimp actually walked into a courtroom and filed papers himself. Rather, a group of lawyers, led by Steven Wise, filed a suit on behalf of the animal on Dec. 10, as the plaintiff. The complaint: that Tommy was kept in a dank and dark cage within a trailer, unfit for an animal that needs much more space and freedom. A legal move like this was basically unheard of, since animals are considered private property, things without rights of their own.

But as detailed in a long and gripping piece in the New York Times Magazine--illustrated with photos of styled chimps in court--Wise and other lawyers are trying to change that, arguing that chimpanzees (and other animals like orangutans, dolphins, and elephants) are autonomous, and due to their intelligence deserve the same rights under the law as human persons:

As recently as 10 years ago Wise’s effort would have been laughed out of a courtroom. What has made his efforts viable now, however, is in part the advanced neurological and genetic research, which has shown that animals like chimpanzees, orcas and elephants possess self-awareness, self-determination and a sense of both the past and future. They have their own distinct languages, complex social interactions and tool use. They grieve and empathize and pass knowledge from one generation to the next. The very same attributes, in other words, that we once believed distinguished us from other animals. Wise intends to wield this evidence in mounting the case that his clients are “autonomous beings,” ones who are able, as Wise defines that term, "to freely choose, to self-determine, to make their own decisions without acting from reflex or innate behavior." He sees these abilities as the minimum sufficient requirement for legal personhood.

Wise is pursuing the legal argument of habeas corpus, or a "court order requiring that a prisoner be brought before a judge by his or her captor in order to rule on the legality of that prisoner's detainment." This argument has been used to grant personhood to those previously denied it, such as in the case of a British slave named James Somerset. A number of non-human entities are also already seen under the law as persons, including corporations, states, and even rivers (as in one case in New Zealand). Wise said he thinks that he will eventually be able to convince a judge that chimpanzees and other intelligent animals deserve such rights.

Wise's case for Tommy was denied and he hasn't yet succeeded in his other suits, but he presses on.