Day 2 - Weird Cases - Custody Battle with a Difference


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Day 2 - Weird Cases - Custody Battle with a Difference

  1. 1. WEIRD CASESAt the centre of a recent custody battle in Sarasota County Circuit Court, Florida sat theexceptionally cute Eli. He is only 11-months old and still in nappies. He doesn’t understandthe legal fight over him between James Casey and Virginia Valbuena. Of course, it’s alwaysdifficult for someone so young to understand litigation but for Eli it is especially challengingbecause he is a chimpanzee.Eli has lived with Valbuena in Florida for most of his life. According to her, Eli is from a wildlifepark in California. She says she collected him from his owners when they brought him over toa chimp habitat in Missouri – a mutually convenient meeting place. Valbuena is training Eli fora Hollywood company.However, Casey, who brought this legal action, claims that Eli was born on a chimpanzeehabitat he used to run with his wife in Missouri – the same habitat from which Valbuenapicked up her chimp. In divorce proceedings, Casey’s wife had been ordered not to sell any oftheir animals but, Casey says, she violated that court order by selling Eli, who is worth$65,000, to Valbuena. Chimps don’t have birth certificates and proving their parentage isdifficult 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 onDNA 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 chimp to attend court. Valbuenapromised that Eli would be well-behaved - apart from sleeping all he likes to do is kiss andcuddle. Valbuena said that lawyers would not be able to tell the difference between Eli and ababy “unless they looked closely”. In the event, Eli had to wait outside the court while peopleinside went ape.The court heard that here were several reasons why Casey held a bona fide belief that Eliwas his: the age and appearance of the chimp, and a previous business relationship betweenhis ex-wife and Valbuena. Casey’s lawyer said that “the only way to be 100 per cent certainof the provenance of the animal is for the court to order a DNA test” and for the results to becompared with those of other chimpanzees in Missouri. That proposal was opposed byValbuena’s lawyer on the basis that, unlike similar tests run by the Department of Revenue inchild 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 infuture if more evidence was provided that Eli was his property. This case isn’t the first toinvolve a chimpanzee. One has even been a client. In a California case in 1999 a courtagreed that a San Francisco lawyer could represent a chimpanzee called Moe - he is stillmuch-loved in San Francisco for his fun, energy and cheeky manoeuvres, and so is thechimp.Gary Slapper is Professor of Law at The Open University. His new book Weird Cases ispublished by Wildy, Simmonds & Hill.These articles were published by The Times Online as part of the weekly column written byGary Slapper