A chimpanzee is not entitled to the rights of a human and does not have to be freed by its owner, a New York appeals court ruled Thursday.
The three-judge Appellate Division panel was unanimous in denying "legal personhood" to Tommy, who lives alone in a cage in upstate Fulton County.
A trial level court had previously denied the Nonhuman Rights Project's effort to have Tommy released. The group's lawyer, Steven Wise, told the appeals court in October that the chimp's living conditions are akin to a person in unlawful solitary confinement.
Wise argued that animals with human qualities, such as chimps, deserve basic rights, including freedom from imprisonment. He has also sought the release of three other chimps in New York and said he plans similar cases in other states.
But the mid-level appeals court said there is no precedent for treating animals as persons and no legal basis.
"So far as legal theory is concerned, a person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights and duties," the judges wrote. "Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions."
That, they ruled, makes it "inappropriate" to grant the rights of a human to the animal.
Judge Karen Peters wrote, "Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions. In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights – such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus – that have been afforded to human beings."
The Nonhuman Rights Project said it will appeal to the state's top court, citing other New York appeals court rulings it says are at odds with Thursday's decision.
"It is time for the common law to recognize that these facts are sufficient to establish personhood for the purpose of a writ of habeas corpus," the organization said, referring to characteristics of chimps it says are "similar to those possessed by human beings."
Tommy's owner, Patrick Lavery, said Thursday he was pleased and expected the ruling.
"I just couldn't picture any court granting habeas corpus for an animal," he said. "If it works for one animal, it works for all animals. It would open a can of worms."
Tommy, believed to be about 40 years old, is a former entertainment chimp who was placed with Lavery about 10 years ago. Lavery said Tommy is cared for under strict state and federal license rules and inspections.
The court noted there have been no claims that Tommy has been mistreated or any of those rules have been violated.
Lavery said Tommy lives in a seven-room enclosure in Gloversville with lots of toys and other "enrichment."
The Associated Press contributed to this report