A US animal rights group has filed what it said is the first lawsuit seeking to establish the "legal personhood" of chimpanzees.
The non-profit Nonhuman Rights Project asked a New York state court to declare a 26-year-old chimp named Tommy "a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned".
The lawsuit seeks a declaration that Tommy's "detention" in a "small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed" in central New York is unlawful and demands his immediate release to a primate sanctuary.
Chimpanzees "possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they're found in human beings", said Steven Wise, the president of Nonhuman Rights Project.
"There's no reason why they should not be protected when they're found in chimpanzees," he added.
The lawsuit on Tommy's behalf is among three the group is filing this week on behalf of four chimps across New York.
The other chimps are Kiko, a 26-year-old chimp living on a private property in Niagara Falls, and Hercules and Leo, two young male chimps used in research at Stony Brook University on Long Island, the group said.
Tommy's owners, Patrick and Diane Lavery, and Stony university did not immediately return requests for comment. Kiko's owners could not be reached on Monday.
The Nonhuman Rights Project used its own research to find the chimps, and Wise first visited Tommy in October after reading a local newspaper article about exotic animals kept at the Laverys' used trailer lot in Gloversville, New York, about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of Albany.
"He looked terrible," said Wise, who previously observed healthy, wild chimps in Uganda. "He looked like a caged chimpanzee – they don't move, they don't look at you. They look depressed."
The lawsuit states that chimps are entitled to a "fundamental right to bodily liberty," which Wise said is the basic right to be left alone and not held for entertainment or research.