Jeffrey Toobin (The New Yorker) wrote an interesting piece on some of the legal issues associated with Leona Helmsley's bequest of billions of dollars for "the care of dogs." Toobin discusses a groundbreaking case involving Washoe:
The modern history of legal rights for animals begins with a chimpanzee named Washoe. “He was the first ‘signing chimp,’ the first chimpanzee who learned sign language to communicate with people,” Victoria Bjorklund, the head of the exempt-organizations practice at the New York law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, said. “There came a time when he was going to be sent off to be used in medical testing, and there was a lot of distress about that possibility.” So Bjorklund and others set up a trust (funded with the proceeds of a book about Washoe), and appointed a guardian to protect him and several other chimps like him. The problem was that New York law said that a guardian could be appointed for a “person with a disability.” Was Washoe a “person” under New York law?
The lawyers at Simpson Thacher argued that “the mental, emotional, sociological, and biological characteristics” of Washoe and the other chimps “warrant their treatment as persons” entitled to representation. The lawyers submitted affidavits from such animal experts as Jane Goodall, who said that “chimpanzees are biochemically closer to humans than they are to any other of the great apes.” According to the brief in the case, the chimps “are capable of rational thought, communication, and other higher cognitive functions,” justifying their treatment as the legal equivalent of minors or disabled humans. In a 1997 decision, the surrogate of Nassau County agreed and appointed a guardian to administer the trust for the benefit of the chimps. “That trust was then respected by the State of Washington, where Washoe lived,” Bjorklund said. “We think it was the first trust ever established for the benefit of specific nonhuman primates.”