A New York appeals court will consider this week whether chimpanzees are entitled to "legal personhood" in what experts say is the first case of its kind.
For Steven Wise, the lawyer behind the case involving a chimp named Tommy, it is the culmination of three decades of seeking to extend rights historically reserved for humans to other intelligent animals.
On Wednesday, a mid-level state appeals court in Albany will hear the case of the 26-year-old Tommy, who is owned by a human and lives alone in what 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.
"The next argument could be that Tommy ... also has the right to bodily integrity, so he couldn't be used in biomedical research," the Boston attorney 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.
Although there are hundreds of captive chimps in the United States, Wise said he thought Tommy and Kiko would make compelling subjects because they lived alone in conditions he said were clearly unfit for a chimp.
The bid to secure legal rights for animals has been criticized by some prominent legal experts, including U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner and New York University law professor Richard Epstein.
If animals gain rights once reserved for humans, courts would be inundated with tricky legal questions that could spawn a series of novel and potentially contradictory rulings, they say.
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner; Editing by Ted Botha, Jonathan Allen and Mohammad Zargham)