Personhood for Primates

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 Henry is an outgoing 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. Henry is also a chimpanzee, and so has no more rights in law than a car or a television. I am one body in a growing number of people want to change all that. Campaigners across the world are attempting to persuade governments to grant great apes elementary “human rights”. We argue that great apes are enough like us to deserve special treatment over other animals. For Henry 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 allotted a human legal guardian he will be sold to the highest bidder. Which can be a zoo, circus or even a scientific testing facility. This month, a judge rejected Henry’s case. Unless the Austria’s appeal court overturns the decision he and the other chimps at the sanctuary face an uncertain future.

Now if Henry lived in Mallorca or any other of Spain’s Balearic Islands on the other hand the story would be much different. In February 2007, Spain’s parliament made history by becoming the first to recognize the individual rights of chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, 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 was the first to instate this policy, after which many have followed.

The United States I am embarrassed to say, is not one of these few countries; and continues to be fairly ignorant to the change. Change can be intimidating to say the least, but this change is one that needs to happen. 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 behavioral and physiological studies that increase our understanding of these species. I understand that biomedical testing is extremely beneficial to the well being of our species and that the testing done saves lives. The question I ask you is why. Why do you we have to maim for our benefit? Im not comparing the worth of my life to another or saying primates are equal to humans but when will the line be drawn to allot these beautiful creatures, our biological brothers and sisters, protection that works.

The US took a small, 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. I ask as an American why aren’t you? 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.

Now I Understand that the idea that attaching personhood to one animal...
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