Animal Rights Group Files Suit to Free Tommy, a Pet Chimp on a Reindeer Farm in Upstate New York


Tommy is 26 years old, and he makes his home in Gloversville, at a reindeer farm called Santa’s Hitching Post. He’s also a chimpanzee, the pet of Diane and Patrick Lavery, and according to the NonHuman Rights Project, he’s being held as a prisoner, caged in a shed on the property.

Yesterday, the NHRP, an animal rights group based in Florida, filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court in Fulton County, asking for Tommy’s immediate release. They used a writ of habeas corpus, a court order that’s typically deployed to bring a prisoner before a judge. It’s the first of four suits the groups says they’ll file on behalf of chimps in held captivity in New York state.

There is, obviously, a bigger legal battle underway here.

The goal of the habeas corpus suits is, as the NHRP explained in their press release yesterday, to get the courts to recognize chimps as independent beings with basic legal rights. The lawsuits, they write, “are based on scientific evidence proving that chimpanzees are self-aware and autonomous, and therefore entitled to be recognized as ‘legal persons’ with certain fundamental legal rights.”

The writ itself, which was written by attorneys Elizabeth Stein and Stephen Wise, the NHRP’s founder and president, argues the same point, writing:

New York has always recognized the common law write of habeas corpus and there is no question this Court would release Tommy if he were a human being, for his detention grossly interferes with his exercise of bodily liberty. The question before this Court is not whether Tommy is a human being — he is not — but whether, like a human being, he is a “legal person” under the law of New York, possessed of the common law right to bodily liberty protected by the common law write of habeas corpus.

The NHRP also argues that the danger to Tommy is immediate, saying that out of the seven chimps they believe are being detained in New York, three have died in the last eight months. Their suit doesn’t ask that Tommy be returned to Africa, but that he be sent to a chimp sanctuary run by the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.

Pat Lavery, one of Tommy’s owners, sounds a little confused. He didn’t immediately respond to several requests for comment from the Voice, but did speak with USA Today while vacationing in Florida, telling the paper that Patrick is one of 11 chimps he’s rescued from abusive homes.

“He’s actually my favorite,” Lavery told the paper. “He’s so attached to us. When we get home, he’ll be so excited to see us.” He also said the cage where Tommy lives exceeds federal standards, has yearly inspections, and features both a mural of a jungle and cable T.V.

But the NHRP’s suit argues that this arrangement doesn’t meet Tommy’s social and emotional needs; in the sanctuary environment, the NHRP writes, he can “spend the rest of his life living like a chimpanzee, amongst chimpanzee friends, climbing, playing, socializing, feeling the sun, and seeing the sky.”

This morning, the NRHP announced they were off to file their next habeas corpus writ, this one on behalf of Kiko, another chimp who lives with private owners in Niagra. The organization will also file suit for Hercules and Leo, who they say live at the New Iberia Research Center in Lafayette, Louisiana, but who were “used in a locomotion research experiment” by the Anatomy Department at Stony Brook University. The chimps were not available for comment.

The full writ of habeas corpus filed by the NonHuman Rights Project on Tommy’s behalf is on the following page.

Send your story tips to the author, Anna Merlan.

Memorandum of Law Tommy Case