CNN — Should a captive chimpanzee have the same rights as a "legal person"?
That's the debate set to unfold after an activist group filed lawsuits on behalf of four chimpanzees, asking the New York Supreme Court to grant them the "right to bodily liberty."
"When we go to court on behalf of the first chimpanzee plaintiffs, we'll be asking judges to recognize, for the first time, that these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned," said Steven M. Wise, founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project.
According to the group, the four chimpanzees are all held in New York state:
• Tommy, 26, is living in a cage on a trailer lot in Gloversville.
• Kiko, 26, formerly worked in the entertainment industry and is now living in Niagara Falls on private property, where he is caged.
• Hercules and Leo, two young males, are owned by New Iberia Research Center and used in a locomotion research experiment in the Anatomy Department at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook.
"Not long ago, people generally agreed that human slaves could not be legal persons, but were simply the property of their owners," Wise said. "We will assert, based on clear scientific evidence, that it's time to take the next step and recognize that these nonhuman animals cannot continue to be exploited as the property of their human 'owners.' "
Neither the owner of Tommy nor the owner of Kiko has responded to CNN's requests for comment.
But Stony Brook University spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow said the university "has not seen any legal papers related to this matter and therefore is unable to comment."
What is personhood?
"To be a 'legal person,' one doesn't need to be a human being or even a biological being. A corporation is a legal person," wrote Joyce Tischler, co-founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Even if the chimpanzees don't understand what a lawsuit is, they benefit from being directly represented, she said.
"We see that in children. They can be removed from an abusive home and be protected, even though the child might not be able to formulate those desires and the issues represented in the court of law," Tischler told CNN.
She added that Spain's parliament passed a resolution in 2008 that deemed great apes to be considered legal persons.
So why not file suit on behalf of all animals?
"Lawsuits have to address a real problem faced by an individual plaintiff. You cannot sue on behalf of all animals everywhere," Tischler said.
The lawsuits are asking for the four chimpanzees to be moved to a sanctuary "where they can live out their days with others of their kind in an environment as close to the wild as is possible in North America," the Nonhuman Rights Project said.
The group said it plans to file more lawsuits across the country on behalf of captive animals "who are scientifically proven to be self aware and autonomous," such as elephants, dolphins and whales.
CNN's Kevin Conlon and Dave Alsup contributed to this report.
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