Image: Hiasl
Lilli Strauss  /  AP
Hiasl, a 26-year-old male chimpanzee looks through the glass at his enclosure at an animal sanctuary in Voesendorf, south of Vienna.
updated 9/27/2007 5:46:13 PM ET 2007-09-27T21:46:13

He's now got a human name — Matthew Hiasl Pan — but he's having trouble getting his day in court.

Animal rights activists campaigning to get Pan, a 26-year-old chimpanzee, legally declared a person vowed Thursday to take their challenge to Austria's Supreme Court after a lower court threw out their latest appeal.

A provincial judge in the city of Wiener Neustadt dismissed the case this week, ruling the Vienna-based Association Against Animal Factories has no legal standing to argue on the chimp's behalf.

The legal tussle began in February, when the animal shelter where Pan and another chimp, Rosi, have lived for 25 years filed for bankruptcy protection.

Activists want to ensure the apes don't wind up homeless. Both were captured as babies in Sierra Leone in 1982 and smuggled to Austria for use in pharmaceutical experiments. Customs officers intercepted the shipment and turned the chimps over to the shelter.

Their upkeep costs $6,800 a month. Donors have offered to help, but under Austrian law, only a person can receive personal gifts.

Organizers could set up a foundation to collect cash for Pan, whose life expectancy in captivity is about 60 years. But they argue only personhood will ensure he isn't sold to someone outside Austria, where he's protected by strict animal cruelty laws.

The animal rights group has been pressing to get Pan declared a "person" so a guardian can be appointed to look out for his interests.

Group president Martin Balluch accuses the judicial system of monkeying around. "It is astounding how all the courts try to evade the question of personhood of a chimp as much as they can," he said.

In April, a district court judge rejected a British woman's petition to be declared Pan's legal guardian. The court ruled the chimp was neither mentally impaired nor in danger, the grounds required for a guardian to be appointed.

In dismissing the Association Against Animal Factories' case, the provincial court said only a guardian could appeal. That doesn't apply, the group contends, since Pan lacks a guardian.

There is precedent in Austria for close friends to represent people who have no immediate family, "so he should be represented by his closest friends," said Eberhart Theuer, the group's legal adviser.

"On these grounds we have appealed this decision to the Supreme Court in Vienna," he said. A hearing date has not been set.

Until this summer, the chimp was known simply as Hiasl. However, in the latest court documents, he was identified as Matthew Hiasl Pan, with the last name derived from "chimpanzee."

The Association Against Animal Factories says it's not trying to get Pan declared a human, but rather a person, which would give some legal status. Otherwise, he is legally a thing.

"The question is: Are chimps things without interests, or persons with interests?" Balluch said.

"A large section of the public does see chimps as beings with interests," he said. "We are looking forward to hear what the high court has to say on this fundamental question."

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