SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 02: A Chimpanzee plays in it's new home at Taronga Zoo on December 2, 2009 in Sydney, Australia. 19 chimpanzees have been relocated to the Orang-utan enclosure. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Tommy, a 26-year-old chimpanzee owned by a couple in upstate New York, has a lawyer and a trust fund in a bid by a nonhuman rights group to have him declared the first animal to be considered a person under the law.
In what may be the first case of its kind, the Boston-based Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is asking a court to free Tommy from what they describe as a "small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed" in Gloversville, N.Y.
NhRP argues, based on "law, science and history" that the chimp has all the rights of habeas corpus -- a writ that requires a person under detention to be brought before a judge -- so that he may be released.
Tommy is on the grounds of Circle L Trailer Sales, Inc. , owned by Patrick and Diane Lavery, according to NhRP.
Diane Lavery told ABCNews.com by phone from her part-time home in Florida that she and her husband had not been served court papers.
"I have no idea what is going on," she said. "I haven't seen anything."
Lavery said they are owners of Circle L Trailer Sales, but when asked about housing a chimpanzee, she said, "no comment."
The group says animals like chimpanzees possess: "complex cognitive abilities as autonomy, self-determination, self-consciousness, awareness of the past, anticipation of the future and the ability to make choices; display complex emotions such as empathy; and construct diverse cultures."
The most important cognitive ability is autonomy, according to NhRP, which includes, "possession of an autobiographical self, episodic memory, self-determination, self-consciousness, self-knowing, self-agency, referential and intentional communication, language planning, mental time-travel," among other traits.
"We think there is sufficient evidence for all four groups of apes as well as elephants, whales and dolphins." -- Steven M. Wise
The petition, filed today in the State of New York Supreme Court of Fulton County, asks that Tommy be granted immediate release, citing common law that has "issued writs of habeas corpus for slaves who were not legal persons at the time so that the issue of personhood and the legality of confinement could be resolved."
"New York statutory and common law do not limit legal personhood to Homo sapiens and have already conferred legal personhood status on non-human domestic animals who are the beneficiaries of trusts," says the petition. "Courts also have routinely extended rights to non-human entities such as corporations."
NhRP argues that these animals deserve fundamental rights such as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, in hopes of breaking down for the first time the barrier between animals and humans.
Today animals cannot be beaten or deprived of food, shelter or medical care, but they are still legally considered property.
"We are talking about bringing these lawsuits on behalf of nonhuman animals because there is a lot of scientific evidence that they, too, are autonomous," said Tommy's self-appointed lawyer, Steven M. Wise, author of "Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals."
"We think there is sufficient evidence for all four groups of apes as well as elephants, whales and dolphins," he said. "We are going to be busy for a long time."
The organization says it has established a trust for the care of Tommy, who is named as beneficiary.
Wise said he will ask the judge to transfer Tommy to the North American Private Sanctuary Alliance in Wauchula, Fla. Founded in 1993, the 120-acre facility houses 45 great apes, many of them former research animals.
Since 1983, as president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Wise said he has taught animal rights at Harvard Law School, authored several books on the subject and organized dozens of volunteers to found NhRP.