Rights for Other Apes, They Insist. Are They Serious?

Now this is real news: A group of influential Homo sapiens has resolved to grant rights to other apes. Spain’s environmental ministers accepted a declaration from scientists and philosophers1; the parliament is now expected to fill in a nonbinding resolution with laws forbidding the use of nonhuman great apes in harmful experiments, or on stage.

Amnesty International has expressed its alarm: What about the rights of the world’s many detained and degraded human beings?

And yet, is there any reason why basic rights to life and liberty should only be discussed with reference to humanity? Can’t we humans act decently — to human beings and others? Surely, respect should be nurtured in all its forms.

Then again, there’s good reason to look closely whenever rights are considered anew. Will the precedent reinforce or diminish what the human community looks for in basic rights?

Fifteen years ago, Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer gathered together a collective of writers to propose basic rights for chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans in a book called The Great Ape Project.2 The group promoting the Spanish proposal is connected with Singer’s international volunteer project, inspired by the book. Pedro Pozas Terrados, representing the branch in Spain, welcomed the “historic day in the struggle for animal rights and in defense of our evolutionary comrades” — emphasizing genetic similarities, as the group’s website does.3

Really, we could call any animals on this planet our evolutionary comrades; calculating the gene overlap seems awfully arbitrary. The key similarity is that other apes are conscious; they experience life.

Although genetic similarity is, I believe, the wrong argument (and one that can cut both ways, for scientists are quick to say that slight DNA differences can be significant), expanding our concepts of personhood and decommodifying conscious life is the right path to travel. How refreshing it will be to see our law respect any conscious beings beyond the ones who use lawn mowers and credit cards.

And taking the rights of apes seriously would be a boon to entire forest biocommunities that need us to stop breeding cattle and logging ancient forests and extracting everything we can get our drills into. The best possible outcome from the Spanish resolution would be the start of a robust movement to defend the planet’s untamed places. That would help apes and tree frogs alike, and they all should have the simple right to live as they will.

But is freedom what the Spanish proposal really seeks? Let’s ask now, while it’s still being worked on. Because unless it (a) ensures the phasing out of captivity and (b) protects habitat, Spain’s animal-rights victory will be illusory. Already it’s showing the hallmarks of illusion: While keeping apes for circuses and television spots will be forbidden under Spain’s penal code, keeping some 315 non-human apes in Spanish zoos will remain legal.

As USA Today described them, the resolutions “give great apes, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, the right to life, freedom from arbitrary captivity and protection from torture.”4 Who will decide what captivity is arbitrary? Will human law make zoos a component of “animal rights”? Granted, some zoo directors genuinely want to protect threatened communities of animals. But are we justified in making ourselves other animals’ masters and keepers when we say we’re helping them? What are we doing to release them from reliance on rescue?

Apes who are already captive, and cannot safely return to their lands, should not be exhibited, but should instead be offered private refuge at a sanctuary prepared to meet their needs, and advocate for their rights. In Spain, both the Centro Rainfer of Madrid and Catalonia’s Mona Foundation have been called sanctuaries, but both fall short of the mark. Rainfer engages in captive breeding of primates as well as language experiments5; Mona allows public viewing and cognitive research.6 To take rights seriously, the influential Homo sapiens of Spain have a responsibility to make the region safe for true refuges — places off-limits to cognitive testing and exhibiting.

Detainees

Challenges to the conception of primates as resources have became a recurring motif in Europe. Britain’s parliament rejected the use of non-human great apes in scientific experiments in 1997; Lord Williams of Mostyn called its end “a matter of morality.”7 Now, European advocates are lobbying to stop tests on great apes and any primates taken from their habitats, and to secure a timetable for ending the use of all primates throughout the European Union. And recently, Austrian activists approached the European Court of Human Rights in their quest to have Hiasl, a chimpanzee, declared a legal person.

Uprooted from western Africa for Baxter’s pharmaceutical testing a quarter-century ago, Hiasl now lives at a Vienna animal shelter. The case began when a group called the Association Against Animal Factories sought a court-appointed guardian to help keep support money in Hiasl’s own name and shield Hiasl from being sold. “It’s hard,” said a New York Times editorial, “to see the harm in that.”8

Right. Because that wouldn’t be a radical change at all. Martin Balluch, of the Association against Animal Factories, said about Hiasl: “We argue that he’s a person and he’s capable of owning something himself, as opposed to being owned, and that he can manage his money. This means he can start a court case against Baxter, which at the very least should mean his old age pension is secure.”

But a pension does not equal animal rights. Catharine MacKinnon notes the ways we “project human projects onto animals, to look for and find or not find ourselves in them”; whereas the key question for the animal-rights advocate is “what they want from us, if anything other than to be let alone, and what it will take to learn the answer.”9 Accordingly, creating non-human rights requires the political insight to identify, to the extent possible, the fundamental interests of the beings involved. This isn’t a matter of contriving palliative responses to the conditions that surround animals already made into objects of trade and study. Other primates don’t come into our society, willingly work, and then retire. Rights would shield them from being brought into our society at all.

Hiasl’s case and Spain’s rights proposal have been followed by reporters the world over. But only the USA continues the large-scale use of non-human apes. And the country that warehouses hundreds of apes for use in biomedical and cognitive experiments is in no hurry to extend justice to them.

The Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection (“CHIMP”) Act of 2000 moved some “surplus” chimpanzees out of US labs, thereby saving money for the government’s whole research enterprise.10 Although it accepts and codifies the human prerogative to experiment on chimpanzees, this law — and Louisiana-based Chimp Haven’s contract to house apes under it — was condoned by a coterie of U.S. anti-vivisection groups, including Peter Singer’s project. And any apes removed from labs under the law can be used again for “noninvasive behavioral studies” — as though it’s anything but invasive to keep a group of apes’ bodies, daily experiences, and relationships completely controlled by their human keepers.11

Jane Goodall, author of the opening chapter in The Great Ape Project, testified before Congress in support of the CHIMP Act, calling the warehousing agreement a “sanctuary.” Michael Bilirakis, who chaired the hearing, noted that the National Institutes of Health didn’t want a law that would put chimpanzees completely off-limits to researchers.

Goodall said sanctuaries don’t rule out “a small operation” and asserted that “the really cruel thing” would be moving them from a more spacious area into a small cage for testing.12

But the really cruel thing is how people made up an ostensibly humanitarian law to hold onto apes as research specimens. What can change the status quo now? Courts should be pressed to consider non-human primates as rightsholders. Meanwhile, the best we can do for them is to release them from the traps our laws have constructed for them. For example, a rulemaking that exempts primates from the federal Animal Welfare Act — based on the point that handling non-human primates for research and commerce is no more appropriate than handling ourselves that way — would bring us a step closer to ending our instrumental use of other conscious beings.

The lawmakers are now considering a Great Ape Protection Act, introduced in the House of Representatives in April. Its text cites the apes’ intelligence and susceptibility to psychological trauma, their genetic relationship to humans, and the expense of keeping them. If enacted, the law would effect a three-year phase-out of invasive research on any chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, orang-utan, or gibbon. Invasive research would include that which might cause injury, distress or fear — but not “close observation of natural or voluntary behavior” of an individual. This suggests that cognitive research, which researchers go to some lengths to portray as voluntary, will be condoned. This likelihood is underscored by the text’s references to the warehousing system established by the CHIMP Act — which does permit cognitive experiments. These laws fail to take apes’ core interests seriously. The objects of “non-invasive” studies are often isolated, and their space and time is never their own. When outside the confines of the lab, apes involved in language studies are walked on leads.13 What they’ll do with their days on this Earth, and the relationships that will be made or broken for them, will depend upon what funding becomes available, what diploma needs to be awarded, or what book needs to be written.

Let Untamed Beings Be

For too long, animals have been plucked out of their own spaces and stuck in labs, zoos, and roadside shows. And now, people are making labs and zoos out of the habitat itself.

The Great Ape Project hopes to involve Spanish communities with the Jane Goodall Institute in Africa.14 So what’s the Goodall Institute up to these days? In Uganda, together with the Walt Disney Company and USAID, the Goodall Institute markets forest-dwelling apes by “habituating” them for tourism. The Goodall habituation project is cited in promotional literature from an outfit called Magic Safaris, which also boasts of a rehabilitation site on Uganda’s Ngamba Island where chimpanzees are “fed four times a day and this is a spectacular moment for visitors. Good photo opportunities as well.”

Magic Safari explains that the process involves two years of manipulation. Once habituated, or trained to accept humans, the chimpanzees are subjected to “a continuous day-by-day focus. Problems can occur…” Evidently, not all of these individuals are thrilled to stop living on their terms and be turned into a moving zoo.

Gorillas face the similar intrusions. At a conference sponsored by the U.S. government, Rwanda’s minister of Trade and Industry spoke of gorillas (the Virunga Mountains are home to nearly half of the world’s 700 or so mountain gorillas) as a common resource of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda.15 There’s money in endangered species; tourism nets Rwanda millions of dollars each year.

Forest-dwelling chimpanzees have also been habituated for research. Some focuses on the effects of logging. But contrast the views expressed when, early this year, an isolated human tribe was reportedly spotted in Brazil. The director of Survival International said such tribes would “be made extinct” if loggers get their land, yet the integrity and privacy of the people is so respected that debate raged even over taking photos of “uncontacted” tribes to prove they exist to stop logging.

When a BBC journalist signed up for a tourist trip to make “first contact” with a West Papuan tribe, Survival’s director Stephen Corry objected, “Tourists could threaten these peoples, especially through the risk of bringing in disease.” If the filmed encounter was real, said Corry, “the tour operator and tourists should be ashamed of themselves.”

If animal rights are to have real meaning at all, no words get nearer to their core than the simple right to be let alone. That very concept arose in an 1890 Harvard Law Review article co-authored by the future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.16 Troubled by the distress caused by intrusive reporters, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis proposed a new tort: the invasion of privacy. Their aim was to shield the individual from “popular curiosity” and to respect the “inviolate personality” as “part of the more general right to the immunity of the person.”

Almost 40 years later, Justice Brandeis wrote that the Constitution’s framers conferred, against the government, “the right to be let alone — the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”17 And surely, at the core of non-human rights is the right to life, to liberty of movement, and to an inviolate personality — the right to be let alone. For other animals, the right’s significance shines with particular intensity. For them, enjoying the most comprehensive of rights would mean regaining the freedom from being subjected to our notions of civilization entirely.

The Way Ahead

The time is ripe for all primates’ rights. In 2005, a panel of 22 scientists, lawyers, and philosophers reported the results of an extended debate over the wisdom of inserting human stem cells into monkey brains, noting the team’s scientists weren’t sure how to ethically separate humans from other primates. And time is of the essence, with nearly half of all communities of primates at risk of extinction due to our hunting and clear-cutting, including for resource-guzzling animal agribusiness. Primates’ rights would project a clear message: Our “go forth and multiply” approach is desperately outdated.

Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, warns that animal rights would “destroy the unique status of man and thus initiate a wholesale transformation of Western civilization.” Seems to me a wholesale transformation is just what’s needed. Only a paradigm shift will have us live in a manner reconcilable with ethics, and the undeniable reality that we are part of a biosphere.

So let’s do it. Let’s allow chimpanzees to live in their lands, rather expect them to have babies in zoos and language labs. Let’s teach our children a bird in the hand’s certainly not worth two in the bush. Let’s leave Chilean Sea Bass in the Chilean Sea. Let’s have peaceable cookbooks. And let’s be careful, as we go, to respect rights. For the world’s free-living beings, that would mean respecting their interest in simply being let alone.

* Lee Hall co-authored the article “From Property to Person: The Case of Evelyn Hart” (showing the constitutional arguments that could be presented in the U.S. court system in support of legal personhood for non-human apes), and also facilitates the project “Great Ape Standing and Personhood” (GRASP) as legal director for Friends of Animals.

  1. See Martin Roberts, “Spanish Parliament to Extend Rights to Apes,” Reuters (25 Jun. 2008). For earlier news history, see Emilio de Benito, “El PSOE Propone el Fin de la ‘Esclavitud’ de los Grandes Simios,” El País (25 Apr. 2006). []
  2. Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, eds., The Great Ape Project (first printing 1993 by Fourth Estate, London). The book articulated a goal of obtaining a U.N. declaration welcoming apes into a “community of equals” with humans. []
  3. See “Sobre el PGS (About the Great Ape Project).” Pedro Pozas Terrados is quoted by Martin Roberts, “Spanish Parliament to Extend Rights to Apes (see note 1). []
  4. Activists Pursue Basic Legal Rights for Great Apes,” USA Today (15 Jul. 2008). Emphasis mine. []
  5. See Boletín de la Asociación Primatológica Española, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Sep. 2002). []
  6. Research at Mona has included studies meant to help adjust primates to refuge life and studies that use them instrumentally and reinforce the image of humans atop an “evolutionary ladder.” According to Mona’s website (visited 23 Jul. 2008), “Because of their contact with humans, some of Mona’s chimps have leapt up the evolutionary ladder in terms of the skills they have, and so the results of this study could provide answers about the evolution human societies.” []
  7. For more on the legal history of this issue see Lee Hall and Anthony Jon Waters, “From Property to Person: The Case of Evelyn Hart,” Seton Hall Constitutional Law Journal (2000). []
  8. Adam Cohen, Editorial Observer: “What’s Next in the Law? The Unalienable Rights of Chimps,” New York Times (14 Jul. 2008). []
  9. Catharine A. MacKinnon, “A Feminist Fragment on Animal Rights,” in Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, at 270 (Cass R. Sunstein & Martha C. Nussbaum eds., 2004). []
  10. Public Law 106-551 (HR 3514); applies to apes used in labs run for U.S. agencies. Chimp Haven (and any private entity which might be awarded a contract under the Act) must provide at least $1 for each $3 of federal funds needed to run the housing system. The law anticipates operating costs up to $30,000,000 annually. Maintaining a great ape in a research laboratory over a 5-year lifespan can cost between $300,000 and $500,000, compared to an approximate cost of $275,000 for care outside that setting, says the text of the proposed Great Ape Protection Act. []
  11. Singer’s Great Ape Project never opposed this. The group openly supported the bill and only expressed reservations when it was amended, as GAP wrote, “to allow chimpanzees to be removed from the retirement facility” — the same provision Goodall hoped to avoid, as described later in this essay. But at all times the law permitted some types of research, saved money for federal research projects using apes, and accepted the idea that only “surplus” apes were to be moved to the euphemistically termed “retirement” sites. []
  12. Although the statement is ambiguous, and could be read as endorsing operations for the health of chimpanzees, Goodall’s remark was made in answer to this question from hearing chair Michael Bilirakis: “Dr. Strandberg, from the NIH, is going to testify that the NIH can’t support this legislation because it would make the animals permanently unavailable for study or monitoring. Expand upon that. What is your feeling there? How strongly do you feel about their not being available for invasive research procedures?” Goodall’s immediate response began: “Well, I think the most important thing here is can they be left in the sanctuary and there are certain procedures, even over and above taking blood which could be carried out…” See Statement of Jane Goodall, Ph.D. CBE, Director of Science and Research for the Jane Goodall Institute, before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Commerce, Subcommittee on Health and Environment, hearing on H.R. 3514, Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act (18 May 2000). Transcript on file with author and available upon request. []
  13. See Russell Tuttle, Apes of the World (1986), at 202 (discussing the chimpanzees Roger Fouts used in language studies). See also Francine Patterson and Eugene Linden, The Education of Koko (1981); representative chapter (indicating a leash was needed after infancy for a gorilla in sign-language research) (link last visited 10 Aug. 2008). For a photo of Kanzi, a celebrated bonobo, out of the laboratory setting and held on a leash, see Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, et al., Apes, Language, and the Human Mind (1998), at 7, 33 (discussing the lead as a tool of necessity, but avoided as long as possible, “since the more freedom Kanzi had, the more he encountered and elected to talk about at the keyboard.”). []
  14. This involves educational collaborations with the Jane Goodall Institute in Congo-Brazzaville; see the March 2007 Spanish-language press release generated by the Great Ape Project in Spain. []
  15. Martin Tindiwensi, “Rwanda: United States to Support Mountain Gorilla Conservation,” The [Kigali] New Times (22 Jul. 2008). []
  16. Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, “The Right to Privacy,” Harvard Law Review (Vol. 4, No. 5; Dec. 1890). []
  17. Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 478 (1928) (Brandeis, J. dissenting; with reference to the Fourth Amendment). []

Lee Hall is legal director for Friends of Animals, an animal-rights advocacy group founded in New York in 1957. Lee can be reached at: leehall@friendsofanimals.org. Follow Lee on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VeganMeans. Read other articles by Lee, or visit Lee's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. HR said on August 27th, 2008 at 12:23pm #

    There would be no zoos if humans didn’t patronize them. Kind of like, there would be no corporate politicians if people didn’t vote for them.

  2. catherine said on August 28th, 2008 at 8:37am #

    What a marvelous piece on animal rights and the relevant issues. Thank you so much.

    I’m appalled to learn what the Goodall Institute is doing. Is it possible she has come to believe over the years (and who could blame her?) that our species is just not capable of granting entire freedom to other species, and this is the best she things she can get for primates?

    In any case, thanks again for so much to think about, and also for the references to follow through on your points.

  3. laura beth said on August 28th, 2008 at 8:42am #

    After reading , Eternal Treblinka, Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, by Dr. Charles Patterson, http://www.powerfulbook.com, the puzzle of why our species learned aggression, force, brutality and violence became clear. First, we practiced it all when humans “domesticated” other beings, then we practiced it on each other.
    Following the beginning of herding socieites, as this book does, we can easily understand how it is that our ancestors needed to become desensitized to cruelty, suffering, torture of sentient creatures in order to take their hides, flesh, organs, young. What is now euphamistically known as “animal husbandry,” is really rape, abduction, killing of those who have no defense.
    This is more about our learned practices of animal exploitation but certainly opened the door for the millions of torurous practices used on our kin, primates. How in the world can we ever calculate a cost for the agony and unimaginable pain we’ve caused them?

  4. Serafina said on August 30th, 2008 at 7:24pm #

    I am so glad Spain has taken this action – even as you say if some of the advocates are making the wrong argument – it reminds me of times when people gendered women were thought to be Biologically lesser beings then men – of a time when it was deemed men could vote but women couldn’t . (My argument is loose but the point is that beings have intrinsic value – so lets focus on our similarities and not only our differences). The fact that Amnesty feels threatened by the Spanish decision as opposed to celebrating a general rise in consciousness that will hopefully benefit their work as well is disappointing.

    Why is it so difficult to learn from nature – from Scientific observations – that we are all connected, species, ecology etc. If we keep compartmentalizing and hierarchicalizing as opposed to building on / understanding our natural symbiosis and respect our distinct habitats. . . well then, it looks to me like we might be doomed – but NOT as long as Lee Hall keeps writing and doing we’re not.
    Thanks for another great article Lee.

  5. Lee Hall said on August 30th, 2008 at 9:00pm #

    Thank you for the words of support. We should keep writing, keep doing, and hold advocates (for human and non-human rights) accountable for their arguments. Personhood for other apes in Spain is indeed a hopeful advance – as long as it doesn’t turn out to be personhood lite.

    As you suggest, the struggle for human rights and struggle for others animals’ rights are the same struggle to transcend systems of domination. So they should be discussed accordingly. The struggle for animal-rights jurisprudence must be taken more seriously. Imagine the power of environmentalism if it were! And we who are living on Earth need that power now.

    I sent the piece to the Swedish abolitionist blogger Per-Anders Svärd, who in turn created this wonderful analogy: in Spain’s case for applying “human rights” to other beings, suddenly these rights are not at all how we remember them, and now they become like dried raisins from the once juicy grapes of rights.