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By Cesar Millan

There’s a court case being decided right now in New York concerning a twenty-six year-old named Tommy. According to his attorney, he has been living alone in a cage for years and should be released to go live with relatives in Florida.

The attorney’s argument is this: “Keeping a legal person in solitary confinement in a cage is unlawful.” That’s hard to disagree with, but the court does have one issue with it because Tommy is not yet a “legal person.”

Tommy is a chimpanzee. His owner argues that the chimp isn’t living in solitary confinement and that he has a stereo and cable TV to keep him occupied. The attorney wants the court to declare Tommy a legal person so that he can be removed from imprisonment and sent to a chimp sanctuary.

A lot of people have reacted to the case by calling it ridiculous, but I think they’re missing the larger point. The whole reason that a lawyer has to argue to have an animal declared a legal person is because animal law in the U.S. is far behind our understanding of animals.

For a long time, animals have been considered property and not companions, at least as far as the law is concerned. This is why people who committed outrageous acts of animal cruelty frequently got what seemed like incredibly light sentences — those acts were considered crimes against property and not against another living being in too many jurisdictions.

However, as of March 2014, South Dakota became the fiftieth and final state to upgrade the status of some crimes against animals to felonies, particularly intentional cruelty. Before 1986, only three states had felony cruelty laws — Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island — and nearly 90% of all felony cruelty laws were not enacted until 1993 or later. Between 1900 and 1986, there were no such laws created at all.

Any sweeping change to the status quo seems to follow this pattern. It begins with a few exceptional cases, and things move very slowly because humans are very resistant to change. Eventually, a small group of cities or states start to change their laws, and other jurisdictions finally follow. By the end of the process, nobody can believe that we were ever capable of doing it any other way.

Behind every one of these movements is somebody like Tommy’s attorney, who is forced to work within the law to change the law. Is a chimpanzee a “legal person?” Probably not in the sense that he would ever be able to live on his own in our modern world. Does he need to be declared a “legal person” in order to be freed from captivity? Under our current laws, yes.

Contradictions like these lead to change and progress. Maybe, one day, there will be a legal category of “sentient animal” which provides protection so that a chimp cannot be forced to live alone in a cage.

This is why I appreciate those who work for animal welfare so much. They are the ones who go out to rescue and rehabilitate abandoned and abused animals, who advocate for stronger laws to protect animals from us, and who fight against cruelty and neglect.

Most of them do it voluntarily and, for a lot of these people, it costs them money. But they’re not in it for fortune or fame. They are in it because of a deep love for all animals, something I share with every one of them.

Because of their hard work, we’re seeing results. Animal protection laws have grown stronger, breed specific legislation is beginning to end, more and more shelters are taking on a strict “no kill” policy, and the number of abandoned and homeless dogs in many places is dropping.

I want to say a big “thank you” to everyone who is working for animal welfare and well-being, whether you’re a volunteer at a shelter or a national advocate lobbying for change. And I’d like to encourage everyone who is an animal lover to help out in whatever way you can.

Tommy the chimpanzee really isn’t a legal person and never can be because, while he is intelligent and self-aware and has needs and wants, he will never be able to articulate a case with us to defend his rights. But we can do that for him, even if it means going to the extreme of declaring him a person. It’s just another step on the path of leading human beings to the inevitable conclusion: Treating animals humanely is the right thing to do.

Stay calm, and think of the animals!

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