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The U.S. Supreme Court says a corporation is a person and a human fetus sometimes is but other times not.

But what about Kiko the chimp?

An animal rights group has embarked on a courtroom crusade to extend the protections of legal personhood to chimpanzees, and it’s starting in Niagara County.

The Nonhuman Rights Project filed suit in State Supreme Court in Lockport last week, attempting to seize Kiko, a 26-year-old chimp, from Niagara Falls primate specialist Carmen Presti.

Arguing that a chimpanzee has enough human characteristics to be covered by the same laws that protect humans from being imprisoned unjustly, the Florida group sued the Primate Sanctuary, which is the official name of the facility operated since 1990 by Presti and his wife, Christie.

The suit attempts to create a legal precedent in attempting to “free” Kiko – not by using any animal cruelty laws but by seeking to give chimps the protection of habeas corpus laws.

Presti scorned the whole notion.

“If that’s not going to open up a can of worms, I don’t know what will,” he said. “The next thing you know, our farmers will be under attack, SPCAs and so on. The next thing you know, chickens are going to be having human rights,” Presti said. “He’s a chimpanzee. He’s an animal, and you have to distinguish the difference. He’s not human.”

The lawsuit asks the court to issue a writ, recognizing that Kiko is “not a legal thing to be possessed by (the Prestis), but rather is a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.”

The case is one of three filed against chimp owners in New York courts by the group that is spearheaded and largely funded by veteran animal rights attorney Steven M. Wise.

The other suits are being filed in Fulton and Suffolk counties. They all seek to apply the habeas corpus laws, which protect people from being jailed without charges, to chimpanzees.

‘Cognitive complexity’

The Nonhuman Rights Project eventually hopes to bring similar lawsuits on behalf of dolphins, whales and elephants, said spokesman Michael Mountain. All of those species have been shown in experiments to possess high levels of what he called “cognitive complexity, self-awareness and autonomy.”

The group’s court filings include lengthy affidavits from 10 researchers detailing experiments showing the humanlike characteristics of chimps, ranging from tool-making to compassion.

The Prestis’ website also acknowledges the intelligence of the chimps.

“Primates are a very social animal with highly developed brains. They will experience pain the same as humans and also share fear, anxiety, stress and joy,” the website states.

Mountain said New York was chosen for the initial court cases because “New York has pretty favorable courts and laws in relation to habeas corpus.”

And the group is in the fight for the long haul, Mountain said, noting that New York has an automatic right of appeal if a trial court rejects a habeas corpus petition.

“That is in many ways what we would be looking for. When it goes to an appellate court, you get a much broader ruling. We’re assuming it’s quite possible that (local) judges, since there are no precedents for anything like this so far, will want to put it up to an appeals court,” Mountain said. “We’re not looking for a complete victory at the first stage of this.”

Sanctuary is goal

If it wins the cases, the group would not free the chimps completely. It seeks to turn them over to the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance for placement in a sanctuary that it believes would be healthier for animals like Kiko than the conditions in which he is being kept by the Prestis.

“Upon information and belief, Kiko is a solitary chimpanzee being detained by Respondents in a cage located in a cement storefront in a crowded residential area ...” the lawsuit charges.

Kiko, who is deaf, had a companion until just recently.

Charlie, another chimp who lived in the Prestis’ facility, died of heart failure Nov. 4 at age 29. Kiko stayed with Charlie’s body for six hours after the death. Charlie was the subject of a public memorial event Nov. 24.

Mountain said three other chimps, including Charlie, were to be subjects of lawsuits, but they died. “They died from things chimpanzees should not be dying of,” Mountain charged.

Presti, though, notes that chimpanzees are susceptible to heart disease.

“Forty-three percent of male chimps have some type of heart ailment between the ages of 20 and 36.

Charlie was one of the unlucky ones,” Presti said.

House 29 primates

Presti said Kiko and Charlie used to share a cage that is 30 feet wide, 30 feet long and 12 feet high, which he said is “five to seven times larger than the USDA requirements.” Kiko has been alone in that cage since Charlie died, Presti said.

He said he bought Kiko, “a special needs chimp,” 22 years ago after Kiko lost his hearing because of abuse by a former owner.

The Prestis have been keeping primates since 1990 and currently have Kiko and 29 others.

Presti said he owns 30 acres of farmland in Wilson, where he has town approval to create a larger primate sanctuary. The Primate Sanctuary website solicits donations for the project.

But Presti said his facility is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and it is inspected without warning once or twice a year.

“We have an impeccable inspection record for the past 26 years,” Presti said. “The worst case we ever got written up for was not having a lid on a garbage can.”

Since Charlie’s death, he said, he has been offered two other chimps but hasn’t acted on it because he’s not sure when he will be able to move to Wilson and also because of Kilo’s deafness.

“His partner has to be handpicked,” Presti said.

Rights of a person

A 91-page legal brief, filed with the suit by Wise and New Hyde Park attorney Elizabeth Stein, extensively cites the Supreme Court’s 1973 abortion ruling, Roe v. Wade, in trying to make the point that courts may grant or deny legal personhood to anything. It also cites litigation dating back to the late 19th century in which the high court has ruled that corporations possess some of the rights of a person.

For example, the brief notes, a fetus can be aborted, but courts also have found that a fetus has the right to be counted as an heir for inheritance purposes. The brief also notes that before the Civil War, slaves were considered property, not people.

The brief argues that a Brazilian judge was on the point of declaring a chimp a legal person in 2005 when the chimp died, making the case moot. Judges in India have given a mosque, a Hindu idol and the scriptures of the Sikh religion the capacity to sue and be sued, and in New Zealand last year, an agreement between the indigenous peoples and the government designated a river as a legal person.

“Legal persons count, whether they are rivers, religious idols, holy books, former slaves, corporations, fetuses or human beings; ‘legal things’ don’t,” the attorneys argued.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com