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US group sues to demand personhood for chimpanzees

Friday, December 13, 2013 by: Ethan A. Huff, staff writer
Tags: personhood, chimpanzees, Nonhuman Rights Project

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(NaturalNews) A Florida-based non-profit group has filed a lawsuit seeking legal personhood for a chimpanzee named Tommy that is currently being detained in a cage in Fulton County, New York. The Nonhuman Rights Project (NRP) maintains that chimpanzees like Tommy possess unique cognitive abilities that closely match those found in humans, and that these creatures deserve to be regarded as people with protected rights just like humans.

The lawsuit is one of three currently being filed by the group on behalf of chimpanzees in captivity all across the state. The group is asking the legal system to declare that chimpanzees have a natural right to bodily liberty, which means they would be free to live in natural sanctuaries with other chimpanzees rather than be forcibly detained in cages.

Chimpanzees "possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they're found in human beings," says Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, as quoted by Reuters. "There's no reason why they should not be protected when they're found in chimpanzees."

Rather than file a single lawsuit, NRP decided to seek out all known cases of detained chimpanzees in New York and file separate lawsuits for each one of them. The group and its advocates say that chimpanzees are not being properly regarded by the system as the intelligent, highly-formed creatures that they truly are, something that became abundantly clear when two chimpanzees that the group had previously intended to file lawsuits on behalf of died before the cases were processed.

Chimpanzees form intimate relationships, families with other chimpanzees

Their names were Merlin and Reba, two chimpanzees that were living in "intolerable conditions" at the Bailiwick Ranch and Discovery Zoo in Catskill. NRP reports that, during an investigative visit, Merlin was found living alone next to a bear, a tiger and various other animals that were pacing in their cages. Merlin's companion Reba had apparently died a few months earlier.

Distressed by the loss of his friend, Merlin reportedly began punching himself repeatedly in the weeks following Reba's death. But rather than provide him with another companion to ease his anxiety, zookeepers left Merlin alone, where he eventually died as a result of complications from an abscessed tooth.

Several weeks after this investigation, another chimpanzee, named Kiko, was found living alone, his companion having recently died from a heart condition. Kiko is deaf and currently living in a private home, but NRP says he could suffer a similar fate as Merlin, Reba and his former companion Charlie, which is why the lawsuits are necessary.

"The legal cause of action that we are using is the common law writ of habeas corpus, through which somebody who is being held captive, for example in prison, seeks relief by having a judge call upon his captors to show cause as to why they have the right to hold him," explains NRP. "Our goal is, very simply, to breach the legal wall that separates all humans from all nonhuman animals."

Chimpanzees are highly conscious beings with incredible cognitive capacity

To some, such efforts might seem unreasonable -- chimpanzees are just dumb animals, right? Wrong. Research shows that, much like dolphins, these unique creatures are very closely matched with humans in terms of their ability to think clearly, retain memories and process information cognitively and consciously. They are also believed to feel emotions in a manner similar to humans.

"We've concluded through the cognitive tests that chimps have extraordinary memories," stated Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa following the publishing of a study he conducted on the cognitive capacity of chimpanzees. "They can grasp things at a glance."

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