NIAGARA FALLS – Sorry, Kiko. You’re a chimp, not a person.
Three judges across the state have ruled in recent days that chimpanzees are not legal people, denying an animal rights group’s request to free them from their cages.
Among the rulings was a one-sentence decision by State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III in Niagara Falls, rejecting a habeas corpus motion on behalf of Kiko the chimp, owned for 22 years by Carmen Presti of Niagara Falls.
Habeas corpus is the legal principle that prohibits imprisonment without charges. The Nonhuman Rights Project, based in Florida, sought to apply the rule to chimps on the grounds that they possess many humanlike characteristics of intelligence and self-awareness.
“I didn’t foresee it going any other way,” Presti said of the court ruling. “They’re trying to give an animal human rights. No matter how intelligent they are, they’re still a nonhuman primate.”
Presti and his wife, Christie, have been keeping primates in their Primate Sanctuary in the Falls since 1990. They are hoping to raise money to move the 30 animals to a 30-acre parcel of land they own in Wilson.
Michael Mountain, spokesman for the Nonhuman Rights Project, said Wednesday the group is not fazed by the rulings, since its goal all along was to get the cases into New York’s appellate courts, where the group believes it has a better chance of success.
“We did not expect a trial court judge would go straight out there and say a nonhuman animal is a legal person,” Mountain said.
According to the Nonhuman Rights Project website, Boniello said during a telephone hearing Monday that he did not want to be the first “to make that leap of faith.”
Mountain said the group was pleased that all three judges ruled flatly that chimps are not legal people, instead of rejecting the motions on a legal technicality. That way, Mountain said, the nub of the issue can go before the higher courts.
However, since the cases were filed in different parts of the state, three Appellate Division panels will hear them and could conceivably arrive at different rulings.
“It’ll be interesting to see how that comes out,” said Mountain, who said the notices of appeal will be filed in a few days.
“The reason we wanted our lawsuits in New York State was that there’s an automatic right of appeal (in habeas corpus cases),” Mountain said.
The other State Supreme Court justices to reject the Nonhuman Rights Project’s motions were W. Gerard Asher of Suffolk County and Joseph Sise of Fulton County.
According to a court transcript, Sise said he would not “recognize a chimpanzee as a human or a person who can seek a writ of habeas corpus.”
But he added, “You make a very strong argument. … Good luck with your venture. I’m sorry I can’t sign the order, but I hope you continue. As an animal lover, I appreciate your work.”