fb-pixel Skip to main content

This past July, an Ideas cover story addressed the provocative legal and ethical question of whether animals, especially highly intelligent ones, should have some of the same rights as people. At the center of the story was a planned lawsuit by the Nonhuman Rights Project, an advocacy group that hoped to win legal “personhood” on behalf of an animal for the first time in an American court.

Last Monday the group filed suit on behalf of its first plaintiff: Tommy, a 26-year-old chimpanzee owned by a used-trailer salesman in Gloversville, N.Y.

The suit makes its argument very directly: It's a writ of habeas corpus petition asserting that Tommy, like all chimpanzees, has enough self-awareness and cognitive capacity to qualify as a "legal person," and thus enjoys certain inherent rights, namely the right to bodily liberty. In this case, liberty would mean retirement to one of two large chimpanzee sanctuaries in Florida.

In the eyes of the law, animals are currently considered property rather than "persons." Though personhood may seem like a leap, the group's argument notes that courts have historically granted personhood to entities other than human beings, including corporations and ships.


The group is going to court on behalf of all four known captive chimps remaining in New York State. Two more suits followed, last Tuesday and Thursday, one to free Hercules and Leo—two young male chimps housed at Stony Brook University—and another for Kiko, an older, deaf male previously used in TV commercials and movies who is now kept on private property near Niagra Falls.

The argument is highly controversial, even among animal advocacy groups. Animals already enjoy a raft of legal protections in the form of anticruelty laws, and government protections for captive chimps have been strengthening recently. Given this momentum, why personhood?

"All of history shows that the only way a being's interests are protected is if they have legal rights that they can enforce," said Steven Wise, director of the project. "If they're not competent—like somebody with Alzheimer's, or a young child, or a chimpanzee—you appoint a guardian whose job is to represent the best interests of their ward. All other ways lead to abuse."

A peek into 2030

An adaptable ground plane could change its function depending on users’ needs.
An adaptable ground plane could change its function depending on users’ needs.Howeler + Yoon architecture

Monorails! Skywalks! Flying cars! When we imagine the future of cities, we tend to picture cool new forms of transit. On Thursday, a new exhibition opened at BSA Space that considers what new kinds of urban transport might really look like by the year 2030.

The exhibition, "Rights of Way: Mobility and the City," features some of the sci-fi vehicles and dramatic new schemes you'd expect in such forward-looking plans. But, explains cocurator Meredith Miller of the firm Milligram-office, real progress in transportation might be subtler. She cites networks of microbuses in present-day Sao Paulo as one example.


Innovation also comes from individuals, and the show features examples of how people are changing transportation systems on their own, today. "We can adapt [urban] spaces for different ends than they were necessarily designed for," said cocurator James Graham. There's the 'parking day' ethos where people take over parking lots, and LED devices that allow you to mark out your own bike lane."

It's appealing to imagine that you could solve your own commuting problems, and also interesting to think about why transportation figures so large in the way we imagine urban progress. Surely, if cities are to improve in any meaningful way, it has to begin with the unpleasantness of a crowded bus in stop-and-go traffic.

A cable car system in Caracas connects a neighborhood with other networks.
A cable car system in Caracas connects a neighborhood with other networks.Urban-Think Tank

"Rights of Way: Mobility and the City" runs at BSA Space, 290 Congress St., through May 26.

Chris Berdik is a journalist in Boston. His book, "Mind Over Mind," was published in 2012 by Current, an imprint of Penguin.