We recently celebrated a great victory for U.S. primates when just last week, President Obama signed the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act into law, which facilitates the transfer of nearly all research chimps to sanctuaries.

Now, more action is being taken to improve the lives of captive chimpanzees in the United States. Okay, maybe the chimps aren’t suing directly, but the Nonhuman Rights Project, a nonprofit dedicated to changing the common law status of nonhuman animals from “things” to “persons” who possess fundamental rights, began the first of three lawsuits on behalf of chimpanzees being held captive in New York.

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This first case filed yesterday is on behalf of Tommy, a chimpanzee who is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used trailer lot in Gloversville. The second case will be on behalf of Kiko, a chimpanzee who is deaf and living in a private home, and the third on behalf of Hercules and Leo, who are owned by a research center and are being used in locomotion experiments at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

According to the Nonhuman Rights Project, “The lawsuits ask the judge to grant the chimpanzees the right to bodily liberty and to order that they be moved to a sanctuary that’s part of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA), where they can live out their days with others of their kind in an environment as close to the wild as is possible in North America.”

That doesn’t really seem like that much to ask, does it? However, this case is unprecedented in that it is asking the courts to view the chimpanzees as legal persons. Animal Legal Defense Fund explains that “to be a ‘legal person,’ one doesn’t need to be a human being or even a biological being. A corporation is a legal person. ‘Legal personhood’ is a fiction, used to recognize one who has legal rights and duties. It’s one of our most powerful concepts, and American legal history is filled with heated conflicts about whether or not slaves, women, children, Native Americans, corporations, and human fetuses would be considered ‘legal persons.’ This and the ensuing lawsuits by the Nonhuman Rights Project and Wise mark the opening volley in a battle that may well change how we view and treat nonhuman animals.”

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Will these unprecedented lawsuits bring about change in how we treat nonhuman animals? We certainly hope that the time is right in our history to start setting more legal precedent on how we treat other species. At the very least, the lawsuit adds another great story to a year full of positive ones for primates.

 Image Source: Valentina Storti / Flickr

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