(Source: The Simpsons/Matt Groening)
If corporations can be considered people, why can't mankind's closest, most-intelligent relatives?

Law professor and trial lawyer Steven M. Wise drew strong reviews for his nonfiction writing chronicling America's unsettling history of human slavery, penning Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery (2005) and An American Trilogy: Death, Slavery, and Dominion on the Banks of the Cape Fear River (2009).
I. Serious Legal Challenge Looks to Gain Limited Human Rights for Great Apes
But in legal circles Professor Wise is known for his stand against what he views as a still standing form of slavery in America -- the ownership of higher primates (so-called "Great Apes").
After receiving his Juris Doctor (J.D.) from Boston University School of Law in 1976, Mr. Wise started a practice as a personal injury lawyer and looked poised for a long and fruitful, if a bit boring, career.   Then he read Peter Singer's Animal Liberation (1975).
The work changed Mr. Wise's outlook and launched him into a new life work -- trying to protect animal rights with the U.S. legal system.  

Professor Steven Wise
Professor Steven Wise delivers a lecture. [Image Source: Animal B-law-g]

His teaching credentials are impressive; he's a regular instructor at Harvard Law School, Vermont Law School, Chicago's John Marshall Law School, Portland, Oregon's Lewis & Clark Law School, and Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine (Boston).  But it was not until this year that Professor Wise felt the time was right to pursue his boldest legal stand -- contending that some primates should be entitled to human-like protections under the U.S. Code of Law.
Last week the law professor's nonprofit, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), filed a suit against three chimpanzee owners.  The case was initiated via a 70-page memo filed with the State Supreme Court in Fulton County, N.Y.  It targets a specific chimpanzee, named Tommy.  Three other chimps -- two of which live in New York State -- are expected to be included in follow-up, claims this month.

NY Supreme Court
The New York State Supreme Court [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

In his filing, Professor Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project, make the philosophical argument that while chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and Bonobos (Pan paniscus) are clearly not entitled to the full rights of a homo sapien, they are entitled to legal protections of a limited form of personhood, similar to the rights that the U.S. already grants corporations and other commercial entities.  The filing states:

This petition asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy (the chimp) is not a legal thing to be possessed by respondents, but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.
There is no question this court would release Tommy if he were a human being.  There can be equally no doubt that Tommy is imprisoned for a single reason: despite his capacities for autonomy, self-determination, self-awareness, and dozens of other allied and connected extraordinarily complex cognitive abilities, he is a chimpanzee.

Professor Wise argues the justifications for keeping Great Apes in cages for "research" is a modern American slave trade. [Image Source: Lincoln and Slavery]

Such habeas corpus filing are commonly filed on behalf of humans (Homo sapiens) who may be unjustly imprisoned by the government or fellow citizens.  But Professor Wise is looking to extend the legal protection in a novel new direction.

II. U.S. is in the Minority in Terms of Primate Experimentation

Some researchers regard Professor Wise's legal "hobby" with derision.  They contend that the ability to freely medically experiment on primates, subjecting them infection, brain surgery, and potential treatments, has been critical to studying human neurology and diseases.  In particular Great Apes are being employed to study the hepatitis C virus and to develop treatment strategies to combat the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

Researchers regularly infect Great Apes with deadly illnesses to study human-specific diseases.  Great Apes often are susceptible to these infections as they're so genetically and physiologically similar to humans. [Image Source: ANH USA]

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) wrote in regards to the failed 2009 attempt by former Rep. Edolphus "Ed" Towns, Jr. (D-New York, 10th District) to offer federal protections for Great Apes (the Great Ape Protection Act (H.R. 1326)):

[T]he Great Ape Protection Act is passed, it could halt a number of ongoing biomedical research studies, particularly on hepatitis C, for which chimpanzees are currently the only existing animal model. “Chimpanzees are a unique and invaluable resource for ethically conducted biomedical research, particularly translational research through which scientific discoveries are advanced into treatments and cures,” the letter continues. Chimpanzees serve as models in studies investigating malaria, human cytomegalovirus, rotavirus, norovirus, respiratory syncytial virus, prion diseases and monoclonal antibody development, among others. Under the existing research system, chimpanzees no longer used in research are not euthanized; rather, they are humanely maintained in retirement facilities until their natural deaths.

The Great Ape Protection Act has a broad definition of “invasive research,” including “any research that may cause death, bodily injury, pain, distress, fear, injury or trauma.” This includes testing of any drug or other substances, research that would involve restraining, tranquilizing or anesthetizing the animal, removal of the animal from its social group or taking tissue samples, including blood, outside of necessary veterinary care.

In other words, some in academia feel it is necessary to infect Great Apes with deadly diseases, as they're just another animal.
But regardless of these academics viewpoint, the fact is that they are in minority worldwide.  Currently only the U.S. and Gabon officially allow medical trials on primates.  In many ways other industrialized have already granted higher primates some legal standing.  Spain recently became the first country to officially recognize Great Apes as limited "people" rights-wise; some lower courts in India have made similar rulings.

Chimpanzee thinking
Only the U.S. and Gabon allow invasive medical research on Great Apes. [Image Source: WWF]

In total, 10 U.S. labs perform research on primates. Roughly 3,000 primates (as of 2007) are kept in captivity in the U.S. for research purposes; of these roughly 1,300 are chimps or bonobos.

chimpanzee handshake
Chimpanzees practice a "secret handshake" at the Aalborg Zoo in Denmark.
[Image Source:  Peter G. Christiansen / Rex Features]

Professor Wise is among a small group of legal scholars working tirelessly to stomp out inhumane internment of great apes in the U.S. today.  He and his colleagues at the NhRP trace the movement's origins back to over 50 years ago, when the writing of Peter Singer and others convinced some universities to discontinue research on mankind's closest relatives.  
These legal experts scoff at the work of animal rights activist such as the often headline-grabbing People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals (PETA).  Raiding laboratories and illegally collecting videos do little to improve chimps’ legal standing, NhRP argues.  The only way to improve that situation is to convince receptive courts to slowly grant Great Apes limited human protections; similar to those they grant corporations.

Save the Chimps
The Save the Chimps sanctuary is one of several sanctuaries the team is hoping to transfer the lab apes to, if the NhRP wins the case. [Image Source:]

The goal of the group is not to "free" the primates or grant them full human rights.  Rather the effort is aimed at putting a permanent end to invasive research on the species and relocate existing lab primates to the eight North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance preserves, a series of preserves in various parts of the country that are currently home to 500+ retired research primates.

The goal is to allow Tommy and other chimpanzee "plaintiffs" "to spend the rest of his life living like a chimpanzee, amongst chimpanzee friends, climbing, playing, socializing, feeling the sun, and seeing the sky."

III. Tommy the Chimp -- Happy Resident, or Victim?

The initial filing targets Tommy, the human name given to a chimp who current "is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used-trailer lot" in Gloversville, New York, according to the filing.  Patrick C. Lavery, the owner of Circle L Trailer Sales in Gloversville and the man currently holding Tommy, scoffed at the suit in a response to The New York Times.

He argues that the 26-year-old Tommy's living conditions are just fine -- he has a "spacious" cage "with tons of toys".  Further, Mr. Lavery asserts he's complied with all state and federal laws.  He argues that he was the good guy, "rescuing" the chimp from an undisclosed previous home where he was mistreated.  He says that he has tried placing Tommy at sanctuaries (which he did not explicitly name), but claims they turned him away, saying they were full.

Tommy the chimp
Tommy the chimp's "spacious" cage [Image Source: Pennebaker Hegedus Films]

He complains:

People ought to use common sense.  If they were to see where this chimp lived for the first 30 years of his life, they would jump up and down for joy about where he is now.

Professor Wise contends that is a falsehood.  He personally visited the primate, according to a comment he shared with Wired.  He said that Tommy was housed in a dank cement cage lined with newspaper in a warehouse at the time of his visit last holiday season.  The Great Ape's only significant "toy" to note was a small, aging color television.

Rhesus macaque
Humans share 96 percent of their genetic code with primates, like this Rhesus macaque monkey.
[Image Source: Mark Snelson]

In his books Rattling The Cage: Toward Legal Rights For Animals (2001, coauthored by Jane Goodall) and Drawing the Line (2002), Professor Wise accuses the U.S. court system treating animals as inanimate property equivalent to a piece of furniture, in terms of legal standing.  If a person abuses some domesticated animals, they can be charged, but the charges are based on the human's actions.  To the law the animal has protections under the law, not legal "rights".

Professor Wise argues this legal perspective denies the fundamental intelligence of many species of animals -- most notably the Great Apes.  He contends much as mankind found excuses to justify philosophically the enslavement of their fellow man, some Americans today are employing similar logic to justify enslaving Great Apes.
He's not making a mere emotion plea like PETA -- even in a legal context.  Rather, he supports his accusation with evidence from nine top scientists whose knowledge of Great Apes spans psychology, neurology, animal behavior, anthropology, cognition, and learning theory.
IV. Coalition of Top Scientists Back Bid for Primate Rights
Recently published research from the Primatological Society president, Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University in Japan revealed that chimps have significant numeric intelligence capabilities and strong memory capabilities.  They can out-perform human children at many calculations, and even outperform low-level college students in some cases.
Other studies have asserted that the sophisticated tools that chimpanzees make and use resemble those of aboriginal humans and tools found from Stone Age human settlements.

chimpanzee tool use
A Chimpanzee cracks open nuts with help of its stone a tool -- a crude rock hammer.
[Image Source: Zooplandia]

University of Arizona Professor of Psychology, James King, asserts that chimps are subjected to an unfair double standard when it comes to intelligence.  While there's no "proof" of autonomous though in Great Apes -- only observed evidence suggesting complex thought (emotions, a sense of self, etc.) -- the same is true of humans, he argues in one of the case's supporting affidavits.  He concludes [PDF]:

Evidence for autonomous behavior in humans is not seriously disputed.  In chimpanzees, the behavioral evidence for autonomy is not seriously disputed.

The primatologist Jane Goodall identified 40 unique "cultures" among chimps and bonobos in Africa.  She witnessed groups of Great Apes carrying out seemingly ceremonial behavior that resembled "rain dances" of aboriginal (human) tribes.
While studies have shown chimps, language-learning abilities are cruder than most humans, at least one captive chimp has learned a "vocabulary" of 800+ signed words; a capacity that puts it on par with some mentally disabled humans.  Gorillas (Gorillini gorilla) have shown even more impressive capabilities; the famous Woodside, Calif. gorilla resident Koko (age 42) has learned 1,000+ signs.  Koko also made headlines for being one of the first non-human creatures to show an interest in keeping pets, caring for various pet cats.

Koko with her kitten
Koko the gorilla, with her pet kitten [Image Source: Dr. Ronald H. Cohn]

Ironically one of the strong pieces of evidence for the sovereignty of Great Apes may come from documents acts of interspecies violent defiance by captive chimps.  Cognitive zoology professor Matthias Osvath of Sweden's Lund University comments in his affidavit [PDF] that like humans chimps are of the only species to "cognitively time travel".

stone throwing chimp
Santino the chimp, carefully collects stones in the morning to throw at zoogoers in the afternoon. [Image Source: Current Biology]

He cites studies of the behavior of Santino, a particularly defiant resident of Furuvik Zoo in Gävle, Sweden.  Santino searches his habitat in the mornings, looking for rocks, which he saves in special locations.  Later in the day he throws those rocks at visitors, who he apparently dislikes.  The capacity to plan ahead (cognitive time travel) is actually a rarity of the animal world -- it's something only a handful of creatures (perhaps only humans and Great Apes) possess.  
Professor Osvath, Professor Wise, and the NhRP hope that the legal system might recognize a topic they deal with far too often -- premeditated violence -- as a sign of free will and human-like intelligence in Great Apes.
V. Growing Momentum in the Philosophical Debate Regarding "Personhood"
Momentum in the scientific community, if not the U.S. court system, seems to be in Professor Wise's favor.  In 2011 a committee for the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a top U.S. medical research coalition, ruled that while chimps were not equivalent to humans, they were similar enough to make their use problematic.  And the committee rebuked the arguments of some biomedical researchers that claim Great Apes are vital to studying disease.

Baby chimp
The IOM and NIH have agreed to phase out chimpanzee use in medical research.
[Image Source: Tamasin Ford]

The 12-person Committee on The Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research rules:

While the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in past research, most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary.  [There is a] decreasing need for chimpanzee studies due to the emergence of non-chimpanzee models and technologies.

While not legally binding, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a federal research institution, agreed to abide by the report's ruling.  NIH director Francis Collins remarked:

I have considered the report carefully and have decided to accept the IOM committee recommendations.

The acknowledgement set up a path to further phase-out of the use of Great Apes in lab research.  As mentioned, in 2007, there were 1,300 chimpanzees and bonobos in labs across the country.  By 2011 that number had dwindled to 937 (436 federally owned; 501 in private labs), according to the report.  Since then those numbers have dropped even farther.
But Professor Wise and his colleagues aren't content with this slow phase out.  Following the filing regarding Tommy, they fired off three more filings last week.  Two targeted a pair of chimps owned by the New Iberia Research Center, at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which are currently housed at New York's Stony Brook University.  Those apes -- Hercules and Leo -- are being used in a locomotion study.

NhRP staff
NhRP's staff: Natalie Prosin, Elizabeth Stein, Steve Wise and Monica Miller (left to right)
[Image Source: Brandon Keim/Wired]

The team on behalf of Kiki, a chimp purchased 20 years ago from an ice cream parlor, filed a third habeas corpus request.  Kiki is currently living at the "Primate Sanctuary", a nonprofit owned by Carmen and Christie Presti.  The suit contends that the institution -- which houses Kiki and several other monkeys and lemurs -- is basically just a tourist attraction run out of the couple's house.  They want Kiki transferred to a full-fledged park-style sanctuary.
Some are skeptical that Professor Wise can win the case.  One key counterargument to his research-backed claims is the so-called "slippery slope" argument.  While technically a logical fallacy, that argument was voiced by Professor Richard Epstein, a legal scholar at New York University (NYU), who alongside Richard Posner, a judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, debated Professor Wise in 2000.
Professor Epstein complained, "[While] chimpanzees and bonobos may be the obvious candidates [to be considered limited "people"].  It’s not clear how far exactly you want to run this."

Nonhuman Rights
The Nonhuman Rights project won't stop until it's won or exhausted its legal options. [Image Source: NhRP]

He argued that the argument would open the door to claims on behalf of livestock like cows, pigs, and sheep; pets like dogs and cats; or even household pests like mice.
Professor Wise would surely counter, though, that the evidence of intelligence in Great Apes is stronger than any other animal other than, perhaps, dolphins.  And they also happen to be our close relatives, in evolutionary terms.  So what appears a slippery slope to critics may not be as slippery as it seems.
The NhRP director has made his intentions clear, though, in an interview with Wired and various press releases.  Even if he loses the case, he will appeal to higher courts until he finds judges who will listen.  And in the process he's determined to bring attention to this ethical dispute.

Sources: Nonhuman Rights Project, NY State Supreme Court writ of habeas corpus petition [PDF], The New York Times, Wired

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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