Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters


Apes -- No longer 'things'?  

Going ape over human rights?

August 2, 2007 Thomas Rose CBC News (Canada)

In 1981, Hiasl was just a baby in Sierra Leone when his mother was shot before his barely focused brown eyes. Shortly after, Hiasl was stuffed into a wooden crate, which was eventually loaded onto a boat and sent to Austria. Hiasl, it turned out, had been sold to a firm in Vienna and would likely have ended up as part of a pharmaceutical experiment had it not been for an alert customs official. He was rescued and turned over to a shelter where he has lived to this day. Unfortunately, the shelter is about to go bankrupt and Hiasl now finds himself before the courts fighting for his very freedom.

Hiasl, you see, is a great ape, specifically a chimpanzee, and an appeals court in Vienna has now been asked to decide whether this chimp deserves the status of being recognized as a legal person. That the question may be answered in the affirmative is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Among the factors likely to be considered will be some recent events in Spain.

On Feb. 28, 2007, the people of the Balearic Islands, an autonomous region of Spain, saw their parliament become the first legislature in the world to approve a resolution granting legal rights to all great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos, the subfamilies of a species (great apes) that also includes humans.

So popular was the decision in Balearic that its cause was quickly taken up in Madrid, where the Spanish parliament is now to decide whether to pass a similar bill granting personhood to great apes throughout the country.

No longer 'things'?

The idea that animals deserve to be recognized under law has been gaining credibility in Europe since at least 1992 when Switzerland amended its constitution to allow animals to be considered "beings" and not things.

A decade later, German legislators voted to add the words "and animals" to a constitutional clause obliging the state to respect and protect the dignity of human beings. The vote followed a German high court decision that allowed Muslim butchers to slaughter animals according to Islamic law, which meant without them first being stunned.

The premise of the Vienna court case, as well as the resolution now before the Spanish parliament, is that these great apes possess an emotional and intellectual conscience similar to that of a human child. As such, it is argued, they deserve at least the same rights as children, such as the right to life, freedom and protection from torture and abuse.

The proposed Spanish law would also ban private ownership of apes, which would mean that the state would have to find sanctuaries for the more than 200 of these animals now registered in Spain. And that could be costly: Hiasl and his pen-mate Rosi, also 26, run up nearly $7,000 a month in room, board and veterinary bills.

The proposed law would also commit the Spanish government to work towards convening an international forum on the issue of protecting the rights of all great apes.

This last feature gained a particular saliency with the recent news that four rare mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo had been slaughtered. Conservationists called the killings "executions" because the bodies of the apes were left to rot whereas poachers would likely have taken the carcasses to sell for food or medical potions.

A shared DNA

In Vienna, the Hiasl case turns on the fact that, in Austria, only humans or "legal persons" have a right to be assigned legal guardians. With Hiasl's sanctuary facing bankruptcy, many people have stepped forward and offered to donate money for his upkeep. But unless there is a legal guardian to manage that money, it will go to the sanctuary's receivers and Hiasl could wind up being sent to the vivisectionist after all.

Back in April, a British woman who teaches in Vienna and who has befriended Hiasl, petitioned a district court to be his legal guardian. But the district court judge rejected that idea, at least partly on the grounds that the case was not an emergency, one of the criteria for guardianship. So now it is on to the appeals court, where the full range of basic rights can be argued.

Of course, there are those who might be tempted to say the chimp is making a chump out of us humans. What's so special about an ape, some will argue, that it deserves the status of personhood? Well, according to renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, who is to testify on behalf of Hiasl, a chimpanzee's DNA is 96 to 98.4 per cent similar to that of humans.

What's more, according to Goodall and others, such as philosopher Peter Singer, co-founder of the Great Ape Project, there is now broad scientific evidence that wild apes can create and use tools. They can choose to wage war or make peace, plan for the future and recognize the past. They can also experience intense emotions such as fear and happiness.

Apes are even capable of learning to communicate in another language and teach it to their offspring. In other words, apes are conscious, self-aware beings, just like humans.

But does that mean they deserve to be granted personhood? Well, why not? Consider that under most international law corporations are recognized as legal persons and are granted many of the same rights humans enjoy, the right to sue, to vote and to freedom of speech. What enables an inanimate object like a corporation to enjoy personhood is a nicety called a legal fiction.

A legal fiction is something assumed in law to be fact, irrespective of the truth or accuracy of that assumption. Corporate personhood is recognized the world over, so why not ape personhood?

More than 2,000 years after Aristotle declared that Mother Nature had made all animals for the sake of humankind, that assumption might soon be stood on its head.

Read more: http://www.greatapeproject.org/index.php

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