At the centre of a recent custody battle in Sarasota County Circuit Court, Florida sat the exceptionally cute Eli. He is only 11-months old, still in nappies and does not understand the legal fight over him between James Casey and Virginia Valbuena. Of course, it’s always difficult for someone so young to understand litigation but for Eli it is especially challenging because he is a chimpanzee.
Eli has lived with Valbuena in Florida for most of his life. According to her, Eli is from a wildlife park in California. She says she collected him from his owners when they brought him over to a chimpanzee habitat in Missouri – a mutually convenient meeting place. Valbuena is training Eli for a Hollywood company.
However, Casey, who brought this legal action, claims that Eli was born on a chimpanzee habitat he used to run with his wife in Missouri – the same habitat from which Valbuena picked up her chimp.
In divorce proceedings, Casey’s wife had been ordered not to sell any of their animals but, Casey says, she violated that court order by selling Eli, who is worth $65,000, to Valbuena.
Chimpanzees do not have birth certificates and proving their parentage is difficult so Casey brought this action to obtain an order for Eli to be given a DNA test. Casey’s lawyer argued that “If it’s good for the state of Florida to execute people based on DNA evidence, I think its good enough to determine the lineage of this animal”.
An initial dispute arose about whether it would be okay for a chimpanzee to attend court. Valbuena promised that Eli would be well-behaved – apart from sleeping all he likes to do is kiss and cuddle. Valbuena said that lawyers would not be able to tell the difference between Eli and a baby “unless they looked closely”. In the event, Eli had to wait outside the court while people inside went ape.
The court heard that here were several reasons why Casey held a bona fide belief that Eli was his: the age and appearance of the chimp, and a previous business relationship between his ex-wife and Valbuena. Casey’s lawyer said that “the only way to be 100 per cent certain of the provenance of the animal is for the court to order a DNA test” and for the results to be compared with those of other chimpanzees in Missouri. That proposal was opposed by Valbuena’s lawyer on the basis that, unlike similar tests run by the Department of Revenue in child paternity cases, the potential for fraud in a chimp case would be “off the charts”.
Judge Roberts dismissed the case but said he was open to another application from Casey in future if more evidence was provided that Eli was his property. This case is not the first to involve a chimpanzee. One has even been a client. In a California case in 1999 a court agreed that a San Francisco lawyer could represent a chimpanzee called Moe – he is still much-loved in San Francisco for his fun, energy and cheeky manoeuvres, and so is the chimp.
Gary Slapper is Professor of Law at The Open University.