Should Great Apes Be Given Legal Rights?

A FEW summers ago, a chimpanzee fell into the moat at Detroit Zoo and started to drown. Rick Swope, a visitor to the zoo, jumped in and pulled the animal back onto the only piece of dry land he could reach, an area already occupied by another dangerously agitated chimp. When asked why he took such a risk, Swope replied: "I looked into [the drowning chimp's] eyes. And it was like looking into the eyes of a man."

Swope is far from alone in thinking that chimps, as well as orang-utans, gorillas and bonobos, are in some ways eerily like humans. Evidence of both cognitive and genetic similarities is fuelling an international drive to win certain "human" rights for all great apes. Backers of this crusade, known as the Great Ape Project, argue that because all great apes have certain "indicators of humanhood"-they are self-aware, have distinct personalities, form deep emotional attachments, are intelligent and have rudimentary linguistic abilities-and are genetically similar to humans, they should be given at least some of the legal rights humans enjoy.

The Great Ape Project has now culminated in a campaign to ensure that New Zealand's new Animal Welfare bill, which may become law within a few weeks, contains a clause making nonhuman great apes the first animals in the world with individual, fundamental rights that will stand up in a court of law: the right to life, the right not to suffer cruel or degrading treatment, and the right not to take part in all but the most benign experiments.

"The idea is to set a precedent that other countries can follow," says David Penny, a theoretical biologist at Massey University in Palmerston North and lead author of a submission to the New Zealand parliament from 38 of the country's scientists, lawyers and philosophers. Under current regulations, the onus is on the government to take action in cases of abuse, but if their campaign is successful, the new law will allow concerned individuals to ste

Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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