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#FreeTommy – Each chimpanzee is an individual who has the right to live a free and fulfilling life

Posted in 18/04/2022


By Alyson Baker*

 In the late 1980s I saw the movie Project X, starring Matthew Broderick. It made a big impression on me – it is fiercely critical of the human exploitation and degradation of chimpanzees. The chimps are credited as individuals alongside their human co-stars, and they have agency in the movie’s plot. Although, thinking about it today, it is also an inter-species version of the ‘white saviour’ trope.  

What I didn’t know when I saw the film, was that after concerns being raised by Bob Barker, a prominent U.S. game show host and animal rights activist, the Los Angeles City Department of Animal Regulation carried out a three-month investigation into the treatment of the chimpanzees on the set of Project X. Reports of cruelty included, among other things, chimpanzees being beaten with leather-covered clubs (1) and tormented with cattle prods (2).

The Department subsequently requested that eighteen felony counts of cruelty be brought against six of the animal trainers who worked on the movie. The American Humane Society, who had been consulted during the film’s production, filed a lawsuit against Barker for defamation. Barker’s insurance company settled this claim in 1994, over Barker’s objections. Given the reputation of the company in charge of the chimpanzees – Sabo’s Chimps – it is very likely there was substance to the claims of abuse on set.

One of the chimp characters in Project X is Goliath, played by a chimp named Karanja, with vocalisations added by actor Arthur Burghardt. Karanja was one of the chimps abused so audiences could learn about the abuse of chimpanzees, so they could feel they were somehow helping chimps by watching a movie. Tracing Karanja’s story is to read of the plight of many chimpanzees held in captivity, for entertainment and other commercial purposes.

We know some facts of Karanja’s history, as his film career wasn’t the only instance of his playing a role to represent his species. On December 2, 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) submitted a petition for a common law writ of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court of Fulton County, New York on behalf of two captive chimpanzees. The NhRP were demanding the recognition of the legal personhood of a chimpanzee named Kiko, and a chimpanzee named Tommy – A.K.A. Karanja.

Tommy was one of the NhRP’s first clients, and they continue to work on his behalf (as they did for Kiko, who, the NhRP believes, died in 2016 after spending years living in captivity in Niagara Falls, New York). Tommy’s legal representation in the courts went on for years, from the unsuccessful 2013 petition, through numerous filings and failures in various courts. Including in 2014 legal efforts to either transfer Tommy to a sanctuary, or at least stop him from being moved out of the New York jurisdiction.

The final denial of an NhRP motion for permission to appeal previous rulings, was issued in May 2018 by the New York Court of Appeals. By this time the NhRP had asked the courts sixteen times for permission to appeal on behalf of Tommy. The legal filings were unsuccessful, but there were some wins for the NhRP. Legal and other experts supported the NhRP, with legal scholar Laurence Tribe maintaining that chimpanzees could be legal persons entitled to the protections of habeas corpus. And a concurring opinion issued by New York Appeals Judge Eugene M. Fahey along with the final ruling, included that the lower courts were wrong and that chimpanzees are surely not legal “things” with no rights, stating “… we should consider whether a chimpanzee is an individual with inherent value who has the right to be treated with respect.”

But what about Tommy? Despite the artwork that accompanied a story about the NhRP’s litigation in the New York Times Magazine (left) (3), Tommy never appeared in court. What do we know of his life off screen and behind the legal arguments? We know he was born in the early 1980s, and raised from infancy by Dave Sabo, owner of Sabo’s Chimps. We also know Sabo’s facilities were inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1982, and there were multiple serious problems with the building where the chimps were housed (4).

In December of 1984, the building caught fire, and five chimpanzees died as a result. Sabo had the chimps embalmed and placed on public display (5). Firemen rescued twenty unconscious chimps from the building, many of whom had suffered burns. Tommy is thought to have been one of the chimps who lived through this trauma. But this was not to be the end of his adversity.

Tommy was put to work by Sabo – he performed in Sabo’s Chimps circuses, in films, and in television shows – eventually being cast as Goliath in Project X. The USDA inspected Sabo’s premises again in early 1985, and again found numerous deficiencies. They unsuccessfully tried to inspect again later that year, and when they did manage entrance in October, none of the failings had been addressed. Despite attempts, the agency didn’t gain access to the premises again until June 1986, when they found the chimps still living in dismal and unhygienic conditions (6).

When Dave Sabo died in 2008, Tommy became the property of Patrick Lavery, who owned the used trailer park where Sabo had been living. This is when NhRP first became aware of Tommy. He was living in isolation in a steel-mesh cell within a windowless shed. He stood on a concrete floor and one of his concrete walls was painted to look like a jungle. To get a glimpse of Tommy’s living conditions we have columnist Charles Siebert’s report from 2014 (7):  

“Inside the shed, the repairman inched open a small door as though to first test the mood within. A rancid milk-musk odor wafted forth and with it the sight of an adult chimpanzee, crouched inside a small steel-mesh cell. Some plastic toys and bits of soiled bedding were strewn behind him. The only visible light emanated from a small portable TV on a stand outside his bars, tuned to what appeared to be a nature show.”

In the following year, while the NhRP was still arguing for his right to liberty through the New York court system, Tommy went missing. From 2016 there was a search to locate him, including by a private investigator hired by the NhRP.  In 2021, Patrick Lavery told the Times Union he couldn’t remember where he sent Tommy (8). But the NhRP believes that in 2015 Tommy had been given to the DeYoung Family Zoo in Wallace, Michigan.  

 In 2016, while the search continued, Tommy featured in another movie, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary film Unlocking the Cage. This movie follows the NhRP through the legal processes of trying to win legal rights for Tommy and other chimpanzees. There are scenes in the movie of Tommy caged on Patrick Lavery’s property (bellow, courtesy NhRP).

It is hard to confirm both that Tommy was transferred to the DeYoung Family Zoo in 2015, and that he remains there, as the zoo no longer has their eight chimpanzees on public display. However, there is evidence that Tommy was been held there in 2016. In that year a USDA investigation following an animal welfare complaint found two male chimps at the zoo. The chimps were a juvenile named Louie and an adult, Billy. The zoo director explained that Billy was not on exhibition for his own safety and that of others. When People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) tried to establish that Billy was Tommy, the zoo countered by filing a complaint against PETA, in which it was acknowledged that the zoo held a chimp called Chimpanzee #2.

Both PETA and the NhRP believe Tommy, Billy, and Chimpanzee #2 are the same individual. In support of this belief is a witness report that, among reports of other animal welfare violations, prompted PETA to submit another animal welfare complaint to the USDA in 2017, demanding an inspection of the zoo. The witness report was of mistreatment of a male chimpanzee in a solitary enclosure, where the chimpanzee was referred to as ‘Tommy’. There is a picture taken at the zoo believed to be of Tommy (above, PETA via The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the NhRP). 

Eventually the USDA inspection that PETA had requested took place. In January 2018 the USDA found that, due to not being able to integrate with Tommy, young Louie was also being held in solitary confinement at the zoo. Since then, the zoo has acquired at least six additional chimpanzees. And as mentioned above, none of the eight chimpanzees are on display. The NhRP believes that Tommy remains in solitary confinement at the DeYoung Family Zoo (9).

So, all we have of Tommy’s life are glimpses. The fiction of a Hollywood movie. Descriptions in court of his potential as a rational sentient being. The odd photograph of him obscured behind mesh. We know that for most of his life he has been alone and confined in a small cell. He, and all the other chimpanzees held in similar circumstances, are evidence that animal welfare legislation and processes are insufficient to provide protections for non-human animals such as Tommy. He, and all the other chimpanzees held in similar circumstances, deserve at least to live out their lives in sanctuaries that would provide them with a small taste of what their lives should have been. 

Tommy’s life could have been one living free in a chimpanzee community in an African homeland. He could have learnt survival skills from loving family and community members, not from being beaten with clubs and shocked with cattle prods. As Jake Davis and Courtney Fern say on the NhRP blog (10), “If Tommy had the life he was entitled to, his days would have been defined by ‘secondary re-growth forests, open woodlands, bamboo forests, swamp forests, and even open savanna with bands of riverine forest and forest savanna mosaic’; not a concrete prison cell without natural light.”

The NhRP continues to work on Tommy’s behalf and is calling on the DeYoung Family Zoo to free Tommy to an accredited chimpanzee sanctuary. They are seeking help: 1) if you are on Facebook, they ask that you send a polite message to DeYoung Family Zoo, comment on their most recent post politely requesting that they free Tommy to an accredited chimpanzee sanctuary, and 2) go to this link Action Alert to ask the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development to conduct an emergency inspection of the DeYoung Family Zoo to check on Tommy’s welfare – you do not have to be a United States citizen to take this action.

Tommy is only one chimpanzee, but that is the point, each chimpanzee is an individual who has the right to live a free and fulfilling life. Wouldn’t it be ideal if Tommy were to once again be a representative chimpanzee, this time representing chimpanzees who, due to public pressure, have been released to a sanctuary. #FreeTommy to a sanctuary where he can finally stand in a natural environment, where he can spend his older years in a safe, caring, and stimulating environment. 

*Alyson Baker lives in Whakatū Nelson, Aotearoa. She is appalled by the predicted rapid path to extinction of so many animals, and also by the way many of them are treated, especially chimpanzees. Alyson volunteered at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Uganda in 2017. She returned to Ngamba in 2018 and also went chimp tracking in Kibale National Park. She was planning to go back to the sanctuary in 2020, and to visit Budongo Forest Reserve in hopes of seeing the chimps who live there, but Covid-19 intervened. In 2021 Alyson completed an MA looking at our moral responsibilities to chimpanzees.

1 AP News. Bob Barker says chimps abused in filming of Project X by Jeff Wilson. May 2, 1987

2 NhRP blog. Finding and freeing Tommy the chimpanzee by Jake Davis and Courtney Fern. March 7, 2022

3 New York Times Magazine. Should a chimp be able to sue its owner? By Charles Siebert. April 23, 2014

4 International Primate Protection League Newsletter. Movie chimps live in poor conditions. July 1987

5 Poughkeepsie Journal. 5 Sabo chimps die in fire by Susan Spaulding. 20 December, 1984

6 International Primate Protection League Newsletter. Movie chimps live in poor conditions. July 1987

7 New York Times Magazine. Should a chimp be able to sue its owner? By Charles Siebert. April 23, 2014

8 Times Union. Churchill: where is Tommy the chimp? By Chris Churchill. April 13, 2021 

9 NhRP blog. Finding and freeing Tommy the chimpanzee by Jake Davis and Courtney Fern. March 7, 2022

10 Ibid.