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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Primate cognition .... will Tommy the Chimp be recognised as a person ?

Tommy is 26. He lives alone behind a trailer sales park in upstate New York. His hobbies include watching cartoons ~ and he is involved in a court case, which has generated great interest around the globe !

Human evolution is the evolutionary process leading up to the appearance of modern humans. There have been many theories confounded on human evolution usually covering the evolution from primates -  the emergence of Homo sapiens ….. and almost immediately some would spring to ask – ‘If humans evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys around?’  Perhaps that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of evolutionary theory.  In evolution,  entire species do not evolve into new species; new species tend to evolve as isolated offshoots of existing (parent) species. There is also the theory that humans did not evolve from apes, gorillas or chimps.  The  modern species have followed different evolutionary paths, though humans share a common ancestor with some primates, such as the African ape.

Primate cognition is the study of the intellectual and behavioral skills of non-human primates. The evidence that animals are more intelligent and more social than we thought seems to grow each year, especially when it comes to primates. It is stated that baboons can distinguish between written words and gibberish. Monkeys seem to be able to do multiplication. Apes can delay instant gratification longer than a human child can. They plan ahead. They make war and peace. They show empathy. They share.

Giving birth can be a wonderful, literally life-affirming event. All species reproduce – and care for their offsprings.  But one extraordinary monkey has taken it to a new level; by acting as a midwife to another monkey in the act of having a baby. The incident is so rare it has never been recorded before in detail, or filmed or photographed. It is also remarkable because, in the natural world, animals are destined to go through such a profound and difficult moment alone. Female animals usually give birth in private, and in solitude. Not for them the benefits afforded human mothers; the comfort and support of others, or their help and possible intervention to ensure all goes smoothly. This assisted delivery is recorded by a researcher in Peking University, Beijing while they were researching a troop of white-headed langur monkeys living wild in China.

Away from this Tommy is 26. He lives alone behind a trailer sales park in upstate New York. His hobbies include watching cartoons. He is a chimpanzee who  is at the centre of one of America's more curious legal battles.  A lawsuit submitted by a group called the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) seeks to have Tommy recognised as a person under law. It's a case with potentially radical implications, challenging as it does human society's very understanding of rights. For his part, Tommy is blissfully unaware of the legal kerfuffle surrounding him. He lives behind Circle L Trailer Sales, along Route 30 near Gloversville, New York. The site is also home to a business called Santa's Hitching Post that rents out reindeer at Christmas. The quality of his accommodation is a matter of dispute. A 79-page legal brief submitted by the NhRP claims that the chimp is kept in a "small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed".

Three years ago, according to the the NhRP, there were four chimpanzees on the site, and not long before that there were six. They "were primarily used in entertainment", Mr Wise has said. But now, say the NhRP, Tommy is "all by himself - his only company being a TV on a table on the opposite wall". Patrick Lavery, Tommy's owner, has insisted that the chimp is comfortable in this environment. Mr Laverty, who said he and his wife Diane had kept chimps for decades, added that Tommy had access to TV, cable and a stereo, and that he enjoyed watching cartoons.  He further denied the cage was small, insisting it was a spacious $150,000 facility with a door to an outside area. During the winter Tommy stays indoors in a building heated to 21C (70F), with the walls painted to resemble a jungle, he added.

Whatever the facts of Tommy's living conditions, he is now the focal point for one of the more distinctive cases to be considered by a mid-level state appeals court in Albany. A panel of five appellate judges heard Mr Wise's petition for a writ of habeas corpus - a request for a custodian to prove he or she has lawful authority to detain a prisoner. The NhRP's petition argues that New York law does not limit legal personhood to human beings. The state has previously conferred legal personhood status on domestic animals who are the beneficiaries of trusts, the campaign says, as well as extending rights to non-human entities such as corporations. The lawsuit does not argue that chimpanzees are human, but that they are entitled to the rights of "personhood". The campaigners draw parallels between chimpanzees kept in captivity - like this one in Dakar - and slavery. The lawsuit refers to an English case from 1772 that dealt with an American slave named James Somerset, who escaped from his owner in London. After a plea of habeas corpus was filed, the court ruled that Mr Somerset was a person rather than a thing and set him free.

They are calling for the ageing chimp to be released to live out his days with others of his kind in a primate sanctuary in Florida. Attorney Steven Wise, of the Nonhuman Rights Project, argues on behalf of Tommy the chimp before the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division. The court will decide whether the animal should be declared a 'person'. Tommy was not in court and nor was his owner. Person is not a synonym for ‘human being’,” the brief explains, “but designates an entity with the capacity for legal rights. Should Tommy win his case, it could lead to broader rights not only for chimps and their fellow primates, but also for other intelligent animals such as elephants, orcas and dolphins.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar                                                                 17th Oct 2014.

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