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Animal rights group asks US courts to recognize chimpanzees as 'legal persons'

An animal rights group has asked three US courts to recognize the "legal personhood" of chimpanzees. The case has been filed on behalf of four chimps the group says have a "fundamental legal right" to liberty.

Nonhuman Rights Project filed the lawsuit to a New York state court asking it to grant a 26-year-old chimp named Tommy "legal personhood," the New York Times reported Tuesday.

It seeks a declaration that Tommy's "detention" in a "small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed" in central New York is unlawful. It demands his immediate release to a primate sanctuary, where he can live out the rest of his days in an environment as close to his natural habitat as possible.

"This petition asks this court to issue a writ recognizing that Tommy 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," the court filing says.

The lawsuit is among three the non-profit group is filing this week on behalf of four chimps across New York.

On Tuesday it petitioned on behalf of a 26-year-old chimpanzee called Kiko, who is deaf and living in a private home in Niagara Falls.

The group has said it plans to lodge a similar petition on Thursday on behalf of two young male chimps called Hercules and Leo who are being used in locomotive experiments at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

None of the chimp owners have responded to media requests for comment.

Chimps display 'complex cognitive abilities'

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

Chimpanzees "possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they're found in human beings," Steven Wise, the president of Nonhuman Rights Project, told news agency Reuters.

"There's no reason why they should not be protected when they're found in chimpanzees," he added.

The challenges were the product of a US-wide search launched by Nonhuman Rights Project to find an optimal venue to file the lawsuits, Wise said.

New York was chosen due to its perceived flexible view of requests for a writ of the centuries-old right in English law to challenge unlawful detention, known as habeas corpus. It was used in New York to allow slaves to challenge their status and establish their right to freedom, petitioners said.

ccp/hc (AFP, Reuters, dpa, AP)