Tommy the Chimp Subject of Bid for Legal Personhood

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"Tommy is in a small cage in a small room that is part of a very large edifice – almost like a huge warehouse," said Wise, who said he had visited the large commercial property and got a glimpse of the chimp. He said the building houses 10 other empty cages.

"They had a lot of chimps before that were primarily used in entertainment," he said.

If the court hears the case, it will decide whether Tommy has the capacity for rights and if he does, if he can be released.

Wise said that NhRP decided to take up the case in the state, and in March went looking for caged animals to be plaintiffs in testing the law. "We tried to identify every chimp in New York," he said.

Three of the seven identified -- Reba, Charlie and Merlin -- had died, according to Wise. Two are currently being kept privately in a cement storage facility in Niagara Falls among other monkeys and exotic birds; two others are being used for locomotion research at Stony Brook University.

In October, Wise said they received word of a commercial operation that sold trailers and reindeer, and it was there they found Tommy and videotaped his living quarters.

"Our goal is to make sure that we move them from a legal status with no rights or capacity to rights for personhood so we can litigate on their behalf," said Wise. "They have a fundamental right to liberty and you can't imprison them, or use them for biomedical research or keep dolphins in aquarium."

Other lawyers have been critical of the effort to give personhood to animals, most notably Richard Epstein, an NYU law professor.

Rebutting Wise at a 2000 debate at Northwestern Law School, Epstein said the definition of personhood is "someone who is part of the same species -- who could interbreed."

He argued that animals should be free from torture but should not have legal rights.

"If you go the whole nine yards you face two major questions: Which animals do it? Chimps and bonobos are obvious, but what about other apes that are small and not friendly," said Epstein at the debate. "Or cattle or domesticated sheep or squirrels or rats. How far do we want to run with this?

"We can find emotions in rats – they have endorphins, too. The number of genes in fruit flies and human beings are the same -- 60 percent."

But Wise told ABCNews.com that animals like Tommy would be treated more like a "4- or 5-year-old human child" under the law.

"They have the capacity for rights," he said. "But you can't sue them criminally or prosecute them civilly. They are autonomous enough to have fundamental rights but not mature enough to have criminal or civil liability."

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