Chimpanzees aren't humans, but are they similar enough to humans that they should be given some of the same legal rights as us? That's essentially the question before a New York court in a thought-provoking case that raises legal, scientific and philosophical issues.
An animal rights group called the Nonhuman Rights Project is trying to free a captive chimpanzee named Tommy using a novel and historic legal argument.
For the first time in a U.S. court it was argued that a non-human animal should be recognized as a legal person. The group maintains that chimpanzees shouldn't be thought of as "things" that can be owned but as "persons" who therefore have fundamental rights — namely, the right to liberty.
The group wants Tommy declared a legal person so it can get what's called a writ of habeas corpus, which would then allow the courts to determine if a person's detention is lawful.
In other words, if Tommy were considered a person his owners would have a hard time justifying his captivity, but as long as he's a "thing," it's fine to keep him locked up. His owners say, in fact, that according to the law he has to be fenced in and is not allowed to roam around their property.
"Sometimes people think we're trying to get human rights for chimpanzees. We're not. We're trying to get chimpanzee rights for chimpanzees," Steven Wise, the group's president and an animal protection lawyer, said in an interview.