Should The Great Apes Have Rights?

Animal rights. Human Nature.

Humans have rights, should human-like animals?

  • 30 May 2007
  • news service
  • Kate Douglas
 HIASL is a gregarious 26-year-old who enjoys painting, watching wildlife documentaries and eating bananas. He’s emotional, empathic and self-aware and he shares 98.4 per cent of your DNA. But Hiasl is a chimpanzee, and so has no more rights in law than a car or a television.

A growing number of people want to change all that. Campaigners across the world are attempting to persuade governments to grant great apes rudimentary “human rights”. They argue that great apes are enough like us to deserve special treatment over other animals. For Hiasl it’s more than a philosophical debate. The sanctuary near Vienna in Austria where he has lived all his life is facing bankruptcy, and unless he is granted “personhood” and allocated a human legal guardian he will be sold to the highest bidder.

This month, a judge rejected Hiasl’s case. Unless the Austrian appeal court overturns the decision he and the other chimps at the sanctuary face an uncertain future.

If Hiasl lived in Mallorca or any other of Spain’s Balearic Islands the story would be quite different. In February this year, the regional parliament made history by becoming the first to recognise the individual rights of chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans, giving them similar status to a child or dependent adult. Any apes living in the Balearic Islands are no longer property to be owned but instead are protected by guardians, who must ensure that their rights to freedom from torture, mistreatment and unnecessary death are being respected. The Spanish parliament will decide this summer whether to follow suit for the rest of Spain.

The campaign has gathered momentum over the past few years and is stirring up a good deal of controversy. The Catholic Church and Amnesty International point out that we have a long way to go to secure human rights before we start thinking about animals. Other critics argue that the move is not radical enough and should be extended to other intelligent social animals such as elephants and dolphins, and potentially to all animals. Meanwhile, all species of great ape face extinction in the wild – possibly within your lifetime.

Planet of the apes

By voting for great- ape rights, the Balearics become the first region to adopt the proposals of the Great Ape Project (GAP), an international organisation that has been lobbying for legal rights for apes since 1993. GAP began when philosophers Peter Singer, now at Princeton University, and Paola Cavalieri from Italy brought together a group of academics, including some of the world’s leading primatologists, to consider the idea of extending human rights to great apes. The result was a book, The Great Ape Project: Equity beyond humanity, which contained 31 essays highlighting the similarities between humans and great apes, challenging readers to reassess their ethical assumptions and calling for an immediate change in laws to recognise the personhood of these other species. After the book came the organisation. GAP now has representatives in seven countries, all working to persuade national governments and international institutions such as the United Nations to change their laws.

The project has had some degree of success. New Zealand considered the possibility of extending human rights to great apes in 1999 as part of its new animal welfare bill. In the end, the bill did not go so far as granting apes individual legal rights, but did give them special status. Testing or teaching involving apes now requires government approval and must demonstrate that any likely benefits are not outweighed by harm to the individual animal. In effect, that means no biomedical testing, only behavioural and physiological studies that increase our understanding of these species.

The US took a smaller, but significant, step in December 2000 when the CHIMP Act (the Chimpanzee Health Improvement Maintenance and Protection Act) was signed into law. The act prohibits routine euthanasia of chimpanzees that are no longer needed for medical research and commits the federal government to funding their lifetime care in sanctuaries. Yet as Michele Stumpe, a lawyer based in Atlanta, Georgia, and president of GAP International, points out, there are still more great apes in captivity in the US than anywhere else. GAP estimates there are at least 3000, with around half of these used in medical research. “As an American, I’m ashamed of that fact,” she says.

Rights or wrongs

In Europe, apes have a much better time of it. The UK government banned their use in biomedical research in 1997, Sweden and Austria have done likewise, and after a similar move by the Dutch government in 2002, research using great apes ceased at the Biomedical Primate Research Centre at Rijkswijk, ending the practice in Europe.

So with all this legal protection already in place, what’s the big deal about individual rights? GAP campaigners say that these regulations don’t go far enough and they still allow people who own great apes to lawfully neglect their needs. Stumpe points out that without rights animals are mere property and their owners have no obligation to consider their best interests. “You can do whatever you want with them.” Legally, however, only “persons” can have “rights”, which is why the law needs to change to recognise the “personhood” of apes.

Singer has been surprised by the world’s reluctance to embrace the GAP message. “We didn’t think it was a great leap to ask for great-ape rights,” he says. “We saw it as an achievable aim.” Having struggled to get the message across for 14 years, though, even he now accepts that the project is controversial.

Stumpe says that one reason for the resistance is the use of terms like “rights” and “personhood”. “It seems like an extremist or radical idea and that scares people, but when we talk about rights, it really just means protection in layman’s terms,” she says. For Singer, the opposition to GAP runs deeper than just semantics. He says great apes are “the victims of arbitrary discrimination”, or what he calls “speciesism”. He makes an argument on moral grounds for extending the human rights to all beings that show intelligence and awareness – including some level of self-awareness – and have emotional and social needs. That means going beyond the boundaries of our own species – and therein lies the problem. “It’s that gulf between humans and animals that people want to maintain,” he says. Others take a similar view. “It’s the next step in the Darwinian debate – it requires a paradigm shift in people’s ideas about themselves,” says Ian Redmond, chief consultant for the UN Great Apes Survival Project. Gary Francione, a leading animal-rights lawyer from Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and a member of the original GAP group, calls it “spiritual superiority”. “We just think we’re special because we’re human.”

Those less sympathetic to the animal-rights agenda see things rather differently. Some argue that beyond the species barrier lies a slippery slope. “Mice share around 90 per cent of human DNA: should they get 90 per cent of human rights?” asks geneticist Steve Jones from University College London. He is concerned that giving rights to great apes would be the beginning of the end of all research with animals. Singer accepts that there is a question about where you draw the line, but sees no reason for that to stop society from taking the first step. “The strongest and clearest case is with great apes, but we’re open to arguments that it could be extended to elephants, dolphins and other mammals,” he says. He wants a wide debate about how far we should extend “the community of equals”.

Some take it even further. Francione no longer supports the idea of extending rights to great apes on the basis that their minds are like ours. Instead, he argues that all sentient beings should have just one right: the right not to be treated as the property of humans (New Scientist, 8 October 2005, p 24). He believes his approach has the advantage of simplicity, because sentience – the ability to feel pain or distress – is an objective quality, and because it would bring an end to captive animals altogether. It would make it illegal to breed any animals – not just great apes, but everything, including farm animals and even pet dogs and cats. His ideas highlight a logical inconsistency at the heart of the GAP agenda: it seeks to give legal rights to animals but does not give them the right to be free. Francione’s approach is undoubtedly several steps too far for many people, and whatever they may believe in private, most campaigners for great-ape protection shy away from such an uncompromising stance in public.

In a world where human rights are so often violated, some critics of the GAP agenda see the debate as a luxury we cannot afford. Last year, with the Spanish parliament due to vote on accepting the GAP agenda, the Catholic Church and Amnesty International expressed just such misgivings. The two groups have since made it clear that they are pro human rights rather than anti animal rights. GAP for its part accepts that a bill of rights for apes is not a priority for everyone.

When it comes to wild apes, there are probably more pressing concerns. The primatologist Jane Goodall has recently commented that when she began working in Africa 50 years ago there were at least a million chimps on the continent. “Now there are perhaps only 150,000,” she says. There may be as few as 10,000 wild bonobos left. Orang-utan numbers are plummeting, and the last few thousand animals could be killed off within a generation by habitat destruction and poaching. Fewer than 5000 lowland gorillas remain, and their extinction may be hastened by the deadly Ebola virus. Only mountain gorilla numbers are increasing – to just 720 or so at the last count.

It is not clear what GAP’s proposals mean for wild apes, however, and even some of the animals’ most outspoken defenders are not convinced that giving great apes human rights is the best way to protect them. Primatologist Frans de Waal from the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, questions the GAP rationale of lobbying for their rights. “The concept of rights applies only to those capable of carrying responsibilities within our society,” he says. He believes the emphasis should be on the obligations humans have towards other animals, both for their care and through conservation.

Redmond, on the other hand, suggests that applying GAP to wild populations might lead to increased penalties for killing apes or even give them land rights, though he concedes that the GAP agenda is extremely unlikely to be taken up by any of the countries where these animals live. “One can discuss this academically, but in practice even land rights for people are not recognised in many of these place,” he says. He is hopeful, however, that if western countries embrace GAP, they could have influence in Africa and Asia. Spain, for example, might help its former colony Equatorial Guinea to improve the enforcement of wildlife law and the planning of land use. At the very least, an increased regard for the well-being of apes among people in western countries would lead to a decreased demand for animals like Hiasl being kidnapped from the wild.

Whatever the outcome of Hiasl’s case, the issue of how best to protect our closest relatives isn’t going away. Not everyone agrees that GAP’s campaign for rights is the right approach – some say it has alienated more people from the cause of great-ape protection than it has attracted. But if Spain adopts the GAP agenda later this year it will send a clear message to the rest of the world. It’s no longer about them and us. We apes have got to stick together.

From issue 2606 of New Scientist magazine, 30 May 2007, page 46-49
Worth fighting for?

The Great Ape Project’s declaration argues for the legal extension of the “community of equals” to include chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans and for the legal enforcement of the following rights:


The lives of members of the community of equals are to be protected. Members of the community of equals may not be killed except in very strictly defined circumstances, for example, self-defence.


Members of the community of equals are not to be arbitrarily deprived of their liberty; if they should be imprisoned without due legal process, they have the right to immediate release. The detention of those who have not been convicted of any crime, or of those who are not criminally liable, should be allowed only where it can be shown to be for their own good, or necessary to protect the public from a member of the community who would clearly be a danger to others if at liberty. In such cases, members of the community of equals must have the right to appeal, either directly or, if they lack the relevant capacity, through an advocate, to a judicial tribunal.


The deliberate infliction of severe pain on a member of the community of equals, either wantonly or for an alleged benefit to others, is regarded as torture, and is wrong.

Source: The Great Ape Project

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