Tommy, a chimpanzee, smiles at his home in Gloversville, N.Y. A chimpanzee is not entitled to the rights of a human and does not have to be freed by its owner.

By George Walsh, AP

A chimpanzee is not entitled to the rights of a human and does not have to be freed by its owner, a New York appeals court ruled Thursday. The three-judge Appellate Division panel was unanimous in denying “legal person-hood” to Tommy, which lives alone in a cage.

A trial-level court had previously denied the Nonhuman Rights Project’s effort to have Tommy released. The group’s lawyer, Steven Wise, told the appeals court in October that the chimp’s living conditions are akin to a person in unlawful solitary confinement.

Wise argued that animals with human qualities, such as chimps, deserve basic rights, including freedom from imprisonment. He has also sought the release of three other chimps in New York and said he plans similar cases in other states.

But the mid-level appeals court said there is no precedent for treating animals as persons and no legal basis. 

“So far as legal theory is concerned, a person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights and duties,” the judges wrote. “Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions.”

That, they ruled, makes it “inappropriate” to grant the rights of a human to the animal.

The Nonhuman Rights Project said it will appeal to the state’s top court, citing other New York appeals court rulings it says are at odds with Thursday’s decision.

Tommy’s owner, Patrick Lavery, said Thursday he was pleased and expected the ruling.

Tommy, believed to be about 40 years old, is a former entertainment chimp who was placed with Lavery about 10 years ago. Lavery said Tommy is cared for under strict state and federal license rules and inspections.

The court noted there have been no claims that Tommy has been mistreated or any of those rules have been violated.

This story appeared in Animal Scene’s January 2015 issue.