Are chimpanzees persons?

The argument about non-human personhood has surfaced once again – this time in a New York State Supreme Court.

The court was hearing the case of Tommy – a 26-year-old chimp allegedly being kept in a shed by a neglectful owner. The animal rights group The Nonhuman Rights Project were petitioning the court to extend personhood rights to Tommy, and prosecute the owner accordingly.  

Despite their characterisation of Tommy as an autonomous individual, the five-member judicial panel ruled that personhood didn’t extend to non-humans. The judges stated:

“Unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions. In our view it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights... that have been afforded to human beings.”

The case is by no means the end of the animal rights movement’s push to have non-human animals recognized as legal persons. Non-Human Rights Project attorney Stephen Wise was very happy to have his argument taken seriously. 

“Can you imagine: I’m in a courtroom, and we’re having a dialogue about what a chimpanzee wants?”

Indeed, the growing body of research into animal sentience is bound to contribute to the impetus to change the system and give greater legal standing to higher sentient beings.  

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | animal rights, law, personhood

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