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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Filler: Are chimps people, too?

Toby chews a treat during his public debut

Toby chews a treat during his public debut in the Onstead Foundation Chimpanzee Habitat at the Houston Zoo Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, in Houston. He is onE of six chimpanzees relocated to the zoo through the combined efforts of Lincoln Park Zoo's Project ChimpCARE, the Houston Zoo, and Curtis and Bea Shepperson, the chimps' owners. The Sheppersons had been under pressure from officials in the Mechanicsville, Virginia area to relocate the chimpanzees because of a recent escape and the lack of proper licenses. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) Credit: AP Photo David J. Phillip

Forget bedtime for Bonzo. At this rate, the chimpanzees will be staying up late, ordering pizza to be delivered and taking over the remote control. Always assuming, of course, these are the things chimps want to do, and they can communicate those wishes to us. That's the rub, really. Even if we wanted to give animals more rights, we might not be any good at figuring out what it is they desire.

Such issues haven't been a big concern in the past, but now the issue of chimpanzee rights is going . . . bananas.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, a Florida-based nonprofit animal-advocacy group, has filed three lawsuits in New York State arguing that several chimpanzees are "autonomous beings" and aiming to establish "legal personhood" for them, which would be a first.

Two of the chimpanzees, young males named Hercules and Leo, are part of a locomotion research project at Stony Brook University. A 26-year-old male chimp, Tommy, lives with his owner on a reindeer farm in upstate Gloversville, and Kiko, a 26-year-old female who once appeared in movies, resides on private property in Niagara Falls.

There isn't an accusation that the animals are mistreated, as such. Tommy's owner, for example, says the chimp lives in an indoor-outdoor habitat that is climate-controlled and has cable television. The accusation is that they're being wrongfully imprisoned.

That argument would make more sense if the plaintiffs wanted to set the animals free. But Nonhuman Rights Project attorney Stephen Wise wants to send the chimpanzees to a sanctuary, which seems like just a different form of captivity. What if Tommy prefers the comforts of Gloversville and his endless TV channels?

What is being sought are writs of habeas corpus for the chimpanzees, asserting they are being unlawfully detained and the jailers must give some justification for the "imprisonment." The suits claim the animals should be living "more chimpanzee-like" lives.

The federal government recently moved to retire most of the chimps it owns. In addition, there's a proposal getting attention in Washington to class all chimpanzees as endangered, which would offer significantly enhanced protections.

It's amazing how much these forms of pro-animal activism seem to owe to our regard for ourselves, rather than our regard for the creatures.

People are fighting for chimps because they are too sentient and too conscious to hold captive, which is another way of saying they're too much like us to imprison. But is how much a species resembles us a moral basis for deciding how we treat it?

I have no idea how much Tommy and Kiko like their homes, or whether Hercules and Leo find their work and habitats enjoyable. I also don't know those things about my Boston terrier, Rosie, or any given cow in a pasture. But if I care about their living situations, I probably ought to care about their freedom equally, rather than basing it on how much they remind me of myself.

We fight for animals with expressive eyes, like Bambi, or those we can teach a little sign language. Psychologists say we relate to animals with flat faces more than ones with beaks or snouts, because they look human. We say, "You can't eat anything with a name," because we have names.

Chimpanzees aren't human and they don't have human rights to be recognized in a court. We need to treat them humanely because they deserve that as animals, not because they resemble us.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.