Chimpanzees are human’s closest genetic relatives, possessing 97% of the human genome. Research — some of it controversial — has determined that many of the Great Apes (chimps, gorillas, orangutangs, bonobos, and humans) have most of the cognitive abilities of humans. Their family and social life is similar to ours. Dawn-Prince Hughes, a noted anthropologist and a leader in the Great Ape Personhood movement, claims that “great apes meet all the standards set out for personhood: self-awareness; comprehension of past, present, and future; the ability to understand complex rules and their consequences on emotional levels; the ability to choose to risk those consequences, a capacity for empathy, and the ability to think abstractly.”
Some of those conclusions are in dispute in the scientific community. One argument made by critics is that researchers tend to anthropomorphize some behaviors of chimps which may compromise some experiments. But recent research strongly suggests that chimpanzees have complex minds capable of great subtlety.
This is important to keep in mind when contemplating the Great Ape Personhood initiatives that are being pushed in many western countries. Do Great Apes deserve to be treated more like humans? Should they be given human rights, especially the right to be free from captivity?
Next week, a New York appeals court will hear the case of Tommy, a chimpanzee in his 20’s, who has been kept in a small cage for most of his life. The suit seeks to free Tommy from his cage and bring him to Florida to live out his life in an animal preserve.
Steven Wise, part of the Nonhuman Rights Project, which is leading the effort, will have to convince a panel of Albany appellate judges that a chimp name Tommy is a “legal person” to get him moved from a cage in an upstate farm to a sanctuary in Florida.
“It’s a morally wrong thing to do,” said Wise of Tommy’s longtime captivity as a pet in Gloversville. “As a matter of both liberty and equality, Tommy should be seen as a person.”
Research by cognitive experts says chimps have autonomous and self-determining qualities akin to human beings, Wise said.
In December, a Montgomery County Supreme Court judge tossed Wise’s writ of habeas corpus that tried to get Tommy, who’s in his mid-20s, sprung from his tiny cage.
Three similar suits filed on behalf of other chimps living in New York state were also thrown out.
But some of the judges remained sympathetic.
“You make a very strong argument. However, I do not agree with the argument only insofar as (habeas corpus) applies to chimpanzees,” said Justice Joseph Sise of Tommy’s case.
“Good luck with your venture. I’m sorry I can’t sign the order, but I hope you continue. As an animal lover, I appreciate your work,” the judge added.
Wise appealed and will take the case to the state Appellate Division in Albany on Wednesday. The ground-breaking case — the first of its kind in the nation — has been years in the making.
It culminated last November when Wise visited Tommy.
“Tommy did not look happy. Chimps are extraordinarily social beings. Keeping him in solitary confinement is essentially the equivalent of putting me in solitary confinement,” said Wise.
Tommy’s owner, Patrick Lavery, didn’t return messages.
But he told the Albany Times Union last year that the chimp’s “really got it good.”
“He’s got a lot of enrichment. He’s got color TV, cable and a stereo,” Lavery said. “He likes being by himself.”
The ignorant owner aside, this would be a hugely consequential decision if the case is decided in Tommy’s favor. It could mean that medical and other testing on live Great Apes would come to an end, complicating — and making more expensive — the process of bringing consumer products to market. It may even make it impossible to keep chimps in captivity in zoos and circuses.
The argument that you can’t give Great Apes human rights because they are unable to understand the very concept of rights falls apart when you consider that there are developmentally disabled humans who are also incapable of understanding their rights. In their cases, a guardian or court-appointed advocate speaks for them. Is that not the case with Tommy?
Some opponents of giving apes rights might make the argument that apes have no souls, and are therefore undeserving of being treated like a human being. Given the limited ability of the two species to communicate, the inner lives of chimps are a mystery. Do they have an understanding of the sacred? Of a supreme being? Given all the surprising information we’ve discovered about Great Apes over the last 50 years, it wouldn’t be shocking if we found out they did.
Certainly we should be cautious and prudent in what rights we grant animals. But what is the ultimate goal? If you believe that how we treat the least of us tells the rest of the world a great deal about our society, then perhaps the goal is simply to affirm our own humanity by demonstrating our capacity to expand freedom beyond the boundaries of our own species.