An animal rights group is fighting to free a 26-year-old chimpanzee named Tommy, who has lived alone in an upstate NY cage. The AP reports that Steven Wise, a lawyer from the Nonhuman Rights Project, argued that Tommy was being unlawfully imprisoned, prompted an appeals court judge to ask, "What about the detention makes it unlawful?" to which Wise replied, "Keeping a legal person in solitary confinement in a cage is unlawful."

The Nonhuman Rights Project, whose work was featured in the NY Times Magazine earlier this year ("Should a Chimp Be Able to Sue Its Owner?"), wants Tommy to be given legal personhood. It explains that it is "the first and only organization petitioning courts to recognize that, based on existing scientific evidence, certain nonhuman animals - specifically great apes, dolphins, and elephants - are entitled to such basic legal rights as bodily liberty and integrity." What kind of scientific evidence? The group says, "Our legal claims are based on the best scientific findings on genetics, intelligence, emotions and social lives of these animals showing they are self-aware, autonomous beings. Our work is supported by an international group of the world’s most respected primatologists."

Tommy lives in Gloversville at Santa's Hitching Post, about 50 miles outside Albany. According to the Times-Union, "Wise has not accused Tommy's owners, Patrick and Diane Lavery of Gloversville, of violating any laws, but brought the court action against them because he contends that Tommy is being held against his will in a cage in a warehouse-type building." Wise said, "Tommy has the autonomy and self-determination that is sufficient for him to be a legal person. He does not want to be imprisoned for his life in a cage, which he has been."

Last year we spoke with Patrick Laverly, the owner of Santa's Hitching Post, and he categorically denied the lawsuit's depiction of Tommy's lifestyle. "He's got cable TV," Laverly tells us. "He's got a stereo system. We're licensed by the USDA, which does regular random inspections, and the whole facility was built bigger than their specifications. Tommy was rescued—we were asked to take him in—and where he came from was an old plywood crate that he couldn't stand up in."

From the NY Times:

Tommy’s legal team... lost its initial bid to have a lower-court judge rule whether the chimp had been unlawfully imprisoned. Its appeal was heard on Wednesday by a somewhat quizzical five-judge panel.

“He’s detained against his will,” said Steven M. Wise, the president of the rights group, who argued the case, adding that no chimpanzee would want to live “in the conditions in which he’s living.”

“He can understand the past, he can anticipate the future,” Mr. Wise said, “and he suffers as much in solitary confinement as a human being.”

When a judge asked Wise, "Can you give any example in here where, in a habeas corpus context, the word 'person' has been shifted to a nonhuman being?" and Wise said, "A legal person is a legal concept. It is not a biological concept."

However, Richard Cupp, a Pepperdine Law School professor, told the AP "that granting legal personhood and rights to animals could unintentionally dilute the concept of human rights. 'We could see over time some of our most vulnerable humans losing out in a rights struggle if they're in direct competition with some particularly intelligent non-human animals,' Cupp said. 'We could have the personhood paradigm weakened by extending it to animals.'"

The Nonhuman Rights Project wants Tommy, as well as other chimps being held in NY State, to be freed and to live at a preserve in Florida. Wise said, "It’s kind of a Club Med for chimpanzees, which, if I were a chimpanzee, I would go to." Wise recently appeared on The Colbert Report:

The group said yesterday, "The Nonhuman Rights Project is pleased with today’s oral argument, which was presented to a packed courtroom. We were allotted 10 minutes to argue, but given 22 minutes. The court was well informed and actively engaged. For virtually the entire time the panel asked questions that went to the heart of the case. We do not expect a decision for another 4-6 weeks."