Should a captive chimpanzee have the same rights as a "legal person"?
That's the debate set to unfold after an activist group filed lawsuits on behalf of four chimpanzees, asking the New York Supreme Court to grant them the "right to bodily liberty."
The group wants chimpanzees in captivity to be released based on scientific evidence proving that the animals are very "self aware."
"When we go to court on behalf of the first chimpanzee plaintiffs, we'll be asking judges to recognize, for the first time, that these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned," said Steven M. Wise, founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project.
According to the group, the four chimpanzees are all held in New York state:
• Tommy, 26, is living in a cage on a trailer lot in Gloversville.
• Kiko, 26, formerly worked in the entertainment industry and is now living in Niagara Falls on private property, where he is caged.
• Hercules and Leo, two young males, are owned by New Iberia Research Center and used in a locomotion research experiment in the Anatomy Department at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook.
"Not long ago, people generally agreed that human slaves could not be legal persons, but were simply the property of their owners," Wise said. "We will assert, based on clear scientific evidence, that it's time to take the next step and recognize that these nonhuman animals cannot continue to be exploited as the property of their human 'owners.' "
Neither the owner of Tommy nor the owner of Kiko has responded to CNN's requests for comment.
But Stony Brook University spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow said the university "has not seen any legal papers related to this matter and therefore is unable to comment."