Should the law define animals as property or as persons with interests and rights? The question recently came up as Connecticut advocates stepped in to help a Texas sanctuary called Primarily Primates.

Twenty-nine years ago, that sanctuary opened and changed the way humans relate to other primates. Animals who’d been unwilling actors, pets or research specimens were no longer used goods that could disappear into nothingness. The refuge would defend their interest in living on their terms, as much as possible, rather than as instruments or playthings of others. Rudy, the first chimpanzee, arrived in 1983, and today enjoys tasting flowers that abound at the refuge.

A few years ago, Ohio State University decided to divest itself of chimpanzees confined there for cognition experiments. University representatives inspected and were impressed by Primarily Primates, which offered a permanent home.

But the researcher in Ohio regretted losing the primates. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which had been at odds with the Texas refuge, took the researcher’s side. A PETA-funded lawsuit filed in early 2006 attempted to assert control over the animals by challenging the contract that transferred the primates from Ohio State to Primarily Primates. Seven chimpanzees and two monkeys were named as plaintiffs. This wrapped the lawsuit in the clothing of activism; yet perversely, it wasn’t a challenge to an institution where animals were used, but against a refuge.

The court dismissed the suit. But an appeal was filed against Primarily Primates. The sanctuary’s attorney couldn’t keep up pro bono. Darien-based Friends of Animals, believing the attacks were endangering sheltered animals and weakening the sanctuary movement, came forward to ensure the refuge could defend itself.

The deaths of two chimpanzees after their arrival in Texas escalated the dispute. Both had heart conditions, common for captive apes. PETA and its supporters blamed the sanctuary, unfairly and inaccurately, for the deaths.

Primarily Primates was under siege. In late 2006, a judge imposed a temporary receivership on Primarily Primates, to investigate whether there had been “any misappropriated or misapplied charity assets.” Central in this scene was a board member of the activist group Animal Legal Defense Fund, Robert Trimble, who became the receiver’s lawyer. It was déjà vu. In the early 1990s, Primarily Primates had hired a lawyer who was also president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Steven Mark Wise, to represent the refuge, but Wise soon became an adversary in a battle over the charity’s assets and management. In 2000, a court suspended Wise from practice for being “embroiled in an internal power struggle at PPI, which he tried to use to punish [Primarily Primates officers] for refusing to pay his bill, and to collect his fee.”

The attacks against Primarily Primates intensified during the receivership. The Ohio State chimpanzees were driven to Chimp Haven, which operates under a contract with the National Institutes of Health. In late 2006, Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) said the apes at Chimp Haven could be useful in a bioterrorism emergency. [Update: “Chimp Haven Is Home”: A Victory?]

Allegations of animal maltreatment had been belied by experienced parties who’d had unfettered access to the sanctuary, including Virginia Landau, a primatologist with the Goodall Institute. Landau – who visits zoos nationwide to improve conditions for captive primates – visited Primarily Primates several times in the year prior to the receivership and said, “The animals look good.”

The Texas attorney general agreed to end the receivership in early 2007, returning the refuge to a restructured board of directors. Priscilla Feral, Friends of Animals’ president, was named to steer refuge policy and administration. Significantly, all parties, including the attorney general’s office, agreed this was in the best interest of the state of Texas, the refuge and its animals. Primarily Primates is currently fulfilling its agreement to finish building the Ohio State chimpanzees’ permanent living spaces. May Chimp Haven now do the right thing and return the Ohio chimpanzees to their private sanctuary, where their status as off-limits to research use or public display is secure.

Primarily Primates also seeks the return of several other animals removed during the upheaval, including chimpanzees Jackson and Emma, who were temporarily removed to an Oregon site named Chimps Inc. This past June, Chimps Inc. filed a complaint in federal court against Primarily Primates to retain “possession” of the pair.

Jackson and Emma spent their formative years at Primarily Primates, and are missed and wanted there. Some say the refuge should forget them, but they’re irreplaceable individuals to whom commitment matters. Lifetime commitment is the hallmark of a sanctuary.

Claims like Chimps Inc.’s assume that animals are “possessions,” or legal property. Today, no human beings are the property of others. What’s the ethical borderline? We humans are not the only ones conscious of our experiences. And a team of 22 stem cell scientists, primatologists, lawyers and philosophers who debated for more than a year the wisdom of inserting human stem cells into monkey brains couldn’t find an ethical dividing line separating humans from other primates, the journal Science reported.

One day, the law will catch up and acknowledge the “personhood” of other primates. That doesn’t mean chimpanzees and monkeys will vote for presidential candidates; it means we’ll be obliged to respect primates’ interests in living in their own habitats rather than in labs, private homes, rental companies, zoos or circuses.

Meanwhile, the sanctuary movement, in which Primarily Primates has a key role, merits the support of the public – and of animal advocates.