Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The rights of great apes around the world

Pan troglodytes in cage
A few weeks ago, it appeared that a New York judge had granted chimpanzees habeas corpus for the first time in the United States, which would have effectively declared chimps legal persons who could challenge their own imprisonment. It turned out this wasn't true. Great apes (gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and chimpanzees) have not been awarded the same legal rights as humans in NY or in any other state. What rights do great apes have in the United States and how do these rights compare to other countries?

Currently, different states have different laws and punishments for animal abuse and cruelty. In Washington state for example, a person can face one year in prison and/or a $5,000 fine for animal cruelty in the second degree, with animals defined as nonhuman mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. The only federal law to address animals used in laboratories, research, and in exhibitions is the Animal Welfare Act, which was signed in 1966 and has since been amended seven times. The Act also covers animal transport and how animals are treated by dealers. The Animal Welfare Act basically sets a minimum standard. States can then create stricter rules or not. Take a look at this link to see the best and worst states for animal rights according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

There are multiple organizations lobbying for more rights for great apes. In addiction to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Great Ape Project and the Nonhuman Rights Project both fight for great ape rights. The Nonhuman Rights Project argues that great apes and other highly intelligent animals such as dolphins and elephants should have legal rights, including personhood. The Nonhuman Rights Project have attempted multiple times to have chimpanzees and other animals are recognized as a person by expanding what common-law defines as a person. They are the group behind the most recent New York ruling mentioned earlier lobbying for the rights of two chimpanzees.

The Nonhuman Rights Project previously attempted to lobby for one of the two chimpanzees mentioned earlier. On December 5, 2014, a NY judge ruled that the chimpanzee, Tommy, was not entitled to legal personhood because no animal has been awarded this right previously and there is no precedent for this case. The judge cited Cupp's argument that rights are connected to "moral agency and the ability to accept societal responsibility in exchange for rights." Judge Sise stated that chimpanzees do not have responsibilities and cannot be held responsible for their actions as a human would. Sise did conclude that chimpanzees are not defenseless and that it is possible to press for further protections for chimpanzees, but the writ of habeas corpus does not apply. To read the full ruling, see here. The Nonhuman Rights Project is currently in the process of appealing this decision.
Chimpanzee named Enos going into space, Public Domain

In what would been a step forward for great ape rights, The Great Apes Protection Act generated interest and controversy when it was first introduced in 2011 (see here and here). This bill would have ended invasive research on great apes. However, it was never voted on before the end of the 2011-2012 session of Congress, thus it must now be reintroduced.

To summarize, while there have been many attempts to grant legal personhood to great apes, these attempts are repeatedly denied. The Great Apes Protection Act would have been a milestone for these animals, but sadly it did not pass. Thus, the only federal protection great apes have is through the Animal Welfare Act. Otherwise, the protection and laws governing what can and cannot be done to apes varies by state.

Let's move on and look at what rights great apes have in other countries.

In 2007, the Balearic Islands (an autonomous community and providence of Spain) became the first in the world to grant legal personhood to great apes. As of today, this remains the only place in the world where great apes are legally recognized as people. While great apes don't enjoy legal personhood in Spain, they can no longer be used in experiments, circuses, and television shows and commercials.

In Belgium, great apes can no longer be used in research since 2008. The same is true for Austria (2006), Sweden (2003), the Netherlands (2002), and the European Union (2010). Japan no longer permits invasive chimpanzee research as of 2006. See a review of the international laws passed here.

Sign for Lucy at National Museum of Ethiopia, Photo Adam Jones
There are those who very strongly believe chimpanzees and bonobos should not be in the genus Pan but in Homo (see Wildman et al., 2003 for a review of the genetics), an argument that would significantly strengthen the case for granting chimpanzees and bonobos the same rights as humans. Placing chimps and bonobos in the same genus as humans would be a large shake up in our evolutionary tree. Lucy, the famed human ancestor shown to the right, is not even in the genus Homo but in Australopithecus. As of now though, chimps and bonobos remain firmly in the genus Pan and are quite far from achieving the same rights as humans.

While other countries have taken significant steps towards protecting great apes, the United States affords these animals no more protection than other primates and animals on a federal level. If something such as the Great Ape Protection Act were to be passed, distinct and ape-specific rules would apply to these intelligent cousins of ours, but no such legislation has been passed. Great apes and other primates in the US are still used in biomedical research, kept privately in some states, and are not awarded any special legal considerations. There are many groups working hard to change this, but it remains to be seen if the US will ever follow the likes of the Balearic Islands and award legal personhood to apes.

Food for thought:

Should humans and great apes both be entitled to the same rights under federal law? What would the implications for this be? Would this change our perception of what defines what it means to be human or would we draw a line between the legal term and our everyday meaning behind what makes us human?

Links of interest:
The Great Apes Project is another organization that seeks to defend the rights of non-human great apes. 
Video from NY Times, "Animals are Persons Too"
Federal laws governing animal care
Should a chimp be able to sue its owner?-NY Times article
A History of Chimps in Medical Research 
Study finds one third of Americans believe animals deserve the same rights as humans

Richard L. Cupp Jr., Children, Chimps, and Rights: Arguments from "Marginal" Cases, 45 Ariz, St LJ 1, 13 (2013)
Wildman, D. E., Uddin, M., Liu, G., Grossman, L. I., & Goodman, M. (2003). Implications of natural selection in shaping 99.4% nonsynonymous DNA identity between humans and chimpanzees: enlarging genus Homo. Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences, 100(12), 7181-7188.

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