The Lower Saxony court's decision will enforce a district government order to re-socialize Robby the chimp despite his owner's belief the ape will be overwhelmed in his new setting. The owner has promised to appeal.
Robby, a zoo-born circus chimpanzee has spent nearly his entire life in human company. He has been in the Belly Circus and living with circus owner and director Klaus Köhler and his family since the age of three. Robby is now believed to be 45 years old.
But a ruling from the regional court of Lunenburg in Lower Saxony means Robby will spend the rest of his days in the company of other apes.
On Thursday, the court overruled Köhler's objections and said Robby must be moved to an ape behavioral institution specializing in the re-socialization of animals. The ruling confirms an order by the local authorities in Celle in September 2015.
The ruling addressed the issue of where a chimpanzee who has spent his entire life in human company belongs. It was based largely on expert testimony from zoo and wildlife veterinarian Pierre Grothmann.
According to Grothmann, Robby displayed signs of suffering from a serious behavioral disorder. The chimp was in undeniably good physical condition, Grothmann said, but he lacked interaction with other chimps. The expert said many things suggested a successful outcome from re-socializing Robby among his own kind, despite the chimp's old age and a life spent living with humans.
"Robby is human"
Robby's owner Köhler argued against the decision and promised to appeal. "He only knows humans, not his own species - he would be completely overwhelmed," Köhler said before the court proceedings began. In court, Köhler said that the ape spent hours every day with the family, playing tug-of-war with the grandchildren and even accompanying the family in the car.
"A removal would be a death sentence for Robby," Köhler said. "Robby is a human and will remain human."
But animal rights activists welcomed the ruling. A spokesperson for the animal protection group "Four Paws" said, "Robby's hand-over must have a significant effect on the German government." Robby is one of the last circus apes in Germany.
Various animal rights organizations had lobbied for Robby's re-socialization, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In a statement for the US-based animal rights group, ape expert Jane Goodall called for Robby's "commercial exploitation" to be ended.
Köhler has one month to lodge his appeal in the Regional Court of Lower Saxony. The re-socialization order will come into effect only after this time, should the appeal be rejected.
Until then, Robby will continue to live at the circus with Köhler and his family.