Hope in the Midst of Despare: End-of-Year Reflections on 2014.




Tomorrow, across America, voters will weigh in on several hot topics. In addition to deciding congressional seats, voters will determine the outcome of several measures on abortion, guns, immigration, parental rights, the minimum wage, and voting rights.

What they won’t decide on is Tommy’s fate. That is currently in the hands of the appellate division of the New York Supreme Court. In April of this year, I wrote about Tommy and Steve Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), the attorney representing Tommy, who happens to be a 26-year-old chimpanzee.

For years, Tommy has lived in solitary confinement in a small, dark, cement cage in a used trailer lot.

Wise and the NhRP aren’t fighting for voting rights, or even parental rights, for Tommy. Wise is simply asking the judge to free Tommy from being imprisoned in a dungeon of a cage. To get him out of prison, Wise needs to convince the court that Tommy should have legal rights – as a nonhuman animal person.

Tommy lives very differently from his kin living in the wild. Chimpanzees naturally live in large groups and develop close social bonds, including bonds between brothers. They remember the past and look forward to the future. When they are isolated from other chimpanzees, chimpanzees can develop psychiatric disorders like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

Right now, since he is not considered a person, Tommy has no legal rights. He can be poked, prodded, and killed, without legal ramifications. He is “something,” not “somebody,” the legal equivalent of a pair of tennis shoes or a carrot.

Wise told WIRED magazine: “’Chimpanzees are autonomous, self-determining beings. Why shouldn’t they be legal persons?’… ‘How is it that we can ignore the autonomy of a nonhuman, while making [autonomy] to be a supreme value of a human being?’”

After all, corporations can be considered persons (but strangely can’t be held liable as persons). Why not then consider living, sentient, intelligent beings as persons?

In court, Wise presented exhaustive scientific evidence provided by the world’s leading primatologists that chimpanzees are deeply intelligent and make conscious choices about their lives – if they are permitted to do so.

The appeals court’s decision is expected in the coming weeks. If Wise is successful, Tommy will be released to Save the Chimps sanctuary in Florida, which is as close to the wild as possible in North America. Having visited the sanctuary, the difference between Tommy’s cage and the freedom he would experience in the sanctuary is like night and day.

If the decision favors Tommy, it could protect individuals like Tommy from some of the worst abuses.

Those who are opposed to Wise and the NhRP’s efforts worry about what it would mean to humans if we take the lives of nonhuman animals more seriously. Fortunately, recognizing the needs of other animals does not minimize who we are as people. On the contrary, it can help enlighten and benefit us, similar to how recognizing the needs, rights, and strengths of women and girls has benefitted men and boys in ways that are impossible to fully articulate.

We really have nothing to lose – but Tommy and others like him have already lost so much. Don’t we owe them at least some of our humanity?

~ Hope Ferdowsian M.D. P.H.M.