Rights group sues over treatment of chimps

MAYFIELD – The owner of a chimpanzee in Mayfield says an animal-rights group’s lawsuit against him is ridiculous.

The group is asking New York courts to recognize scientific evidence of emotional and cognitive abilities in chimpanzees and to grant the animals “legal personhood” so they are ensured better treatment.

Nonhuman Rights Project, a nonprofit founded in 2007 by Massachusetts lawyer Steven Wise, filed a lawsuit Monday against Mayfield chimpanzee owner Patrick Lavery, a separate suit Tuesday against another owner and plans to file yet another lawsuit Thursday. The group wants the courts to declare the chimps are not things to be possessed and caged by people and should be released from “illegal detention.”

The group is seeking an order, on behalf of four chimps, for their release to a sanctuary that is a member of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, to live out their lives with other primates in a natural outdoor setting.

“In this case, we are claiming that chimpanzees are autonomous,” Wise said. “That is, being able to self-determine, be self-aware, and be able to choose how to live their own lives.”

Wise said he doesn’t expect the decisions to be favorable because the judges have no legal precedent to rely on.

But he added: “We’ll take it to the Appellate Division and then the state Court of Appeals. We’ve been preparing for lawsuits for many years. These are the first in a long series of suits that will chip away at the legal thinghood of such non-human animals as chimpanzees.”

The group filed suit Monday in state Supreme Court in Fulton County on behalf of Tommy, an adult male chimp owned by Lavery and kept in a shed in a used-trailer lot. The lawsuit claims Tommy is kept in a small cage in a chilly shed with only a television to keep him company.

“It is a ridiculous lawsuit,” said Lavery, who lives on Route 30.

Lavery said he has heard about the lawsuit, though he hasn’t been served with papers yet.

According to Lavery, his “shed” is a fully licensed facility and he has rescued chimps before. According to Lavery, many chimps that are cared for are placed in zoos or parks of some kind.

Lavery said sanctuaries for chimps are full, requiring people to care for the animals.

According to Lavery, the care of chimpanzees, due to being an endangered species, is strictly regulated. Lavery said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has random inspections and scrutinizes caretakers.

“I’ve always been in full compliance, never had a problem,” Lavery said.

According to Lavery, the “shed” he is accused of keeping Tommy in is roughly 60 to 70 feet long with an outdoor area, cable television, heating and insulation. Lavery also said he keeps “a mountain” of toys for Tommy to play with.

Lavery compared it to a kindergarten classroom. He said he has received praise from many USDA inspectors regarding the treatment of the chimp and the cleanliness of the facility.

Lavery said he felt those filing the lawsuit “didn’t have a leg to stand on.”

“A lot of activists think they know better than the USDA,” Lavery said.

The national group says it is dedicated to changing the common law status of some species other than humans. The group’s board of directors includes Wise and chimpanzee research pioneer Jane Goodall.

The lawsuits include affidavits from scientists who say chimpanzees have complex cognitive abilities, such as awareness of the past and the ability to make choices, and display complex emotions such as empathy.

“Once we prove that chimpanzees are autonomous, that should be sufficient for them to gain legal personhood and at least have their fundamental interests protected by human rights,” Wise said.

If the lawsuits succeed, similar ones could eventually be filed on behalf of other species considered autonomous, such as gorillas, orangutans, whales, dolphins and elephants, Wise said.

The lawsuit Tuesday was filed in Niagara Falls on behalf of Kiko, who lives in a cage in a brick building of the nonprofit Primate Sanctuary in that city. Owners Carmen and Christie Presti have said they plan to move Kiko and other monkeys to a new facility on a large rural property.

The group said the third lawsuit will be filed Thursday on behalf of two chimpanzees being used in locomotion research at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

David Favre, a professor of animal law at Michigan State University who’s not part of the lawsuit, said chimpanzees ought to have recognition within the legal system. He said animals typically are protected by anti-cruelty and animal welfare laws, but prosecutors often don’t pursue animal cruelty complaints.

He called the lawsuits “unprecedented” and said if they succeed, “it would be the first time a court has been willing to step forward and examine the living conditions that a particular chimpanzee is in, and take jurisdiction over the chimpanzee and move it someplace more suitable to its needs.”