Animals in Court: Can a Chimpanzee Sue?
His name is Tommy. He is a chimpanzee, about 20 years old, and lives in an aluminum dark, cold shed with only a television for light. Tommy was raised from infancy by Dave Sabo, a proprietor of a troupe of performing circus chimpanzees, who had recently passed away.
A few weeks later, animal legal scholar Steven Wise, along with Natalie Prosin (director of the Nonhuman Rights Project [Nh.R.P]) and Elizabeth Stein (New York-Based animal-law expert) went to the Fulton County Courthouse in Johnstown, NY to present multiple copies of a legal document on behalf of Tommy. The 106 page long document included details of the “petitioner’s” solitary confinement “in a small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed,” and 9 affidavits from world renowned primatologists detailing the physiological, cognitive, and physical harm Tommy is enduring.
Animals have been seen in the court system for centuries. In the Middle Ages, people put animals on trial for perceived offenses, such as murderous pigs, and disruptive sparrows during church sessions. In September 1916, Mary the Elephant was killed by one of the circus trainers, and was sentenced to be hanged by the circus owner. There was also Ziggy, a zoo elephant who was chained to a wall of an indoor enclosure for almost 30 years after nearly killing his keeper. For quite some time, animals have faced the legal system as defendants, and are never the plaintiffs. In addition, animals have been viewed as property with no set rights of their own, which is what Wise wants to change, and for judges to view them as individuals entitled to rights.
On the other hand, many people in the legal field and beyond believe giving an animal legal personhood is an oxymoron since they are already protected under state and federal animal-welfare laws. Wise argues, in Tommy’s case, under current laws, it isn’t illegal to keep a chimp in a cage, but if the cage doesn’t meet proper standards, the animal is rarely taken away because they are considered private property.
The fight for Tommy and other suffering animals to gain a better living environment and more legal rights in the court system will not happen overnight, and Wise knows this. More or less, the Nh.R.P.’s efforts are to continuously report and air the evidence of animal suffering so other lawyers, judges, and eventually, society will take notice and change the way we view animal rights.
What do you think about this argument? What do you think about animals as plaintiffs in court? Do you think society will change to provide animals with more legal rights?