N.Y. court to determine if chimp is a person

Verena Dobnik
Associated Press

New York — Should a chimpanzee be treated as a person with legal rights?

That’s what attorney Steven Wise tried to convince a state appeals court in Manhattan on Thursday. Wise, who represents the Florida-based Nonhuman Rights Project animal advocacy group, argued that two chimps named Tommy and Kiko should be freed from cages to live in a mammoth-sized outdoor sanctuary in Florida.

The Boston lawyer has been trying for years, unsuccessfully, to get courts to grant the New York chimps habeas corpus in order to, he says, free them from unlawful imprisonment.

He says that if the judges agree, the apes — which didn’t appear in court — would be sent to live with others of their species on one of 13 islands amid a lake in Fort Pierce, Florida, that comprise the Save the Chimps sanctuary.

A five-judge panel will issue its ruling in the coming days or weeks.

Kiko’s keeper, Carmen Presti, says he’s not giving him up.

He and his wife rescued the deaf chimp 23 years ago from a life of performing at state fairs and in the television movie “Tarzan in Manhattan.” Kiko is believed to have lost his hearing when he was beaten by a trainer, and has medical problems requiring constant attention.

“If he’s taken away, he could die without his family to give him the special care he needs, and to bring him into the house to play,” says Presti, of Niagara Falls, New York, where he runs the nonprofit Primate Sanctuary, whose rescue animals are part of a youth educational program.

His keeper, Patrick Lavery, calls the various lawsuits “a ridiculous thing.”