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Friday, 26 April, 2002, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
US activists demand lawyers for chimps
Our nearest relative: Should apes get lawyers too?
Animal activists in the United States have launched a new campaign to let chimpanzees go to court.

The Chimpanzee Collaboratory says chimpanzees are so close to humans - sharing 98.7% of our genetic make-up - that they deserve to get the same kind of legal representation as children.

A minimum level of autonomy is sufficient to justify the basic legal right to bodily integrity

Lawyer Steven Wise
Campaigners say this would let activists act as legal guardians for the chimps, potentially lodging law suits against researchers and animal entertainers.

But opponents say granting chimpanzees legal rights would be the start of a slippery slope, and that the current laws provide adequate protection.

Just like us

Among the rights chimps might be granted are the right to life, the right to freedom and the right to freedom from torture.

Research on great apes has shown that they have many of the characteristics associated with humans.

For example, the way in which they examine themselves in the mirror and their ability to name one another indicates they have a sense of self, says Andrew Whiten, Professor of Evolutionary and Developmental Psychology at the UK's St Andrew's University.

What concerns us is the increasingly litigious nature of those who believe that no animal should be used for any reason

Frankie Trull
US researcher
Steven Wise, a proponent of chimpanzee rights, says this is enough to justify giving them a basic legal identity.

"I say that a minimum level of autonomy - the abilities to desire, to act intentionally and to have some sense of self, whatever the species - is sufficient to justify the basic legal right to bodily integrity," he writes in the latest issue of Nature magazine.

"Such immunity rights as bodily integrity and freedom from slavery can belong to human children, infants, the very retarded, the profoundly senile and the insane," says Mr Wise, a lawyer from the Boston-based Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights.

Why then, he argues, should chimps, which are in some ways more sophisticated than human infants, lose out?

Drawing the line

Frankie Trull of the US National Association for Biomedical Research says the chimpanzee example is the "beginning of a slippery slope".

"What concerns us is the increasingly litigious nature of those who believe that no animal should be used for any reason," he told the Wall Street Journal.

Scientists are also concerned about the long-term implications.

"I can understand and agree with the scientific basis for it. My concern about it is, where do you draw the line?" said Professor Whiten.

He says it is not clear that just because chimpanzees are similar to us they necessarily suffer more than, for example, chickens, which are not like us.

Others say more research into animal cognition is necessary before rights can be assigned to them.

Chimpanzees are already protected by laws making it illegal to catch and kill them and some say that all that is needed is better implementation of the existing legislation on the ground.

The threat they face from science has subsided, with experimentation on great apes banned in several countries, including the United Kingdom.

Breeding of chimpanzees for research was stopped in the United States in 1997. However, around 1,500 chimpanzees remain in captivity and available for experimentation.

See also:

11 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Apes in line for legal rights
14 Jan 99 | Sci/Tech
Ape family falls out over TV
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