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Tommy the Chimp the Center of a 'Legal Personhood' Court Case

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Tommy, chimpanzee
Tommy, a 26-year-old chimpanzee, looks through the grate at his enclosure in upstate New York. Tommy is at the center of a court case that will consider whether chimpanzees are entitled to "legal personhood."2014 Pennebaker Hegedus Films, Inc.

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ALBANY, N.Y. — A New York appeals court will consider whether chimpanzees are entitled to "legal personhood" in what experts say is the first case of its kind. On Wednesday, a mid-level state appeals court will hear the case of 26-year-old Tommy, who is owned by a human and lives alone in what attorney Steven Wise describes as a "dark, dank shed" in upstate New York.

Wise is seeking a ruling that Tommy has been unlawfully imprisoned and should be released to a chimp sanctuary in Florida. A victory in the case could lead to a further expansion of rights for chimps and other higher-order animals, including elephants, dolphins, orcas and other non-human primates, Wise said.

Tommy's owner, Patrick Lavery, has made the rare move of waiving his right to make an argument in the case. Lavery did not return a request for comment last week, but said when the lawsuit was filed last year that Tommy's "shed" was a state-of-the-art $150,000 facility, and that the chimp had been on a waiting list for a primate sanctuary for three years.

An appeals court in Rochester in December will hear a similar case from Wise involving a chimp named Kiko. State judges dismissed both cases but allowed Wise to create the record necessary for an appeal. Wise is using a legal mechanism traditionally filed on behalf of people, usually prison inmates, who claim they have been unlawfully imprisoned.

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— Reuters

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