An animal rights group has filed what it says is the first lawsuit seeking to declare a captive chimpanzee named Tommy a “legal person”.
The US non-profit Nonhuman Rights Project claims the 26-year-old primate is being kept in a “small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed” in central New York.
The organisation is demanding his immediate release to a sanctuary and has asked a state court to rule that he is “a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned”.
Chimpanzees “possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they’re found in human beings,” Steven Wise, the president of the group, told Reuters.
The lawsuit on Tommy’s behalf is among three the group is filing this week on behalf of four chimps across New York.
The other chimps are Kiko, a 26-year-old chimp living on a private property in Niagara Falls, and Hercules and Leo, two young male chimps used in research at Stony Brook University on Long Island.
Mr Wise first visited Tommy in October after reading a local newspaper article about exotic animals kept in a used trailer lot in Gloversville, New York, about 50 miles (80km) northwest of Albany.
“He looked terrible,” he said, who previously observed healthy, wild chimps in Uganda. “He looked like a caged chimpanzee – they don’t move, they don’t look at you. They look depressed.”
The lawsuit states that chimps are entitled to a “fundamental right to bodily liberty,” which Mr Wise said is the basic right to be left alone and not held for entertainment or research.
Tommy’s owners failed to provide Reuters with a comment.