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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 March 2007, 10:53 GMT 11:53 UK
Should apes have human rights?

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Apes and humans have common ancestors but should they have the same rights? An international movement to give them "personhood" is gathering pace.

What would Aristotle make of it? More than 2,000 years after the Greek philosopher declared Mother Nature had made all animals for the sake of man, there are moves to put the relationship on a more equal footing.

Judges in Austria are considering whether a British woman, Paula Stibbe, should become legal guardian of a chimpanzee called Hiasl which was abducted from its family tribe in West Africa 25 years ago.

The animal sanctuary where he has lived is about to close and to stop him being sold to a zoo, Ms Stibbe hopes that she can persuade the court he deserves the same protection as a child.

Gorillas, bonobos, orang-utans and chimps are great apes
Chimpanzees and bonobos differ from humans by only 1% of DNA and could accept a blood transfusion or a kidney
All great apes recognise themselves in a mirror
Elephants and dolphins show similar self-awareness
Great apes can learn and use human languages through signs or symbols but lack the vocal anatomy to master speech
Great apes have displayed love, fear, anxiety and jealousy
In 1997 the UK government banned experiments on great apes but not on primates such as marmosets and macaques
Sources: Ian Redmond, Charlotte Uhlenbroek

Spanish MPs are also being urged to back a similar principle, one already endorsed by the Balearic parliament and held dear by the international organisation The Great Ape Project - that apes be granted the right to life, freedom and protection from torture.

So should apes such as those at London Zoo, which opens its Gorilla Kingdom on Thursday complete with gym and climbing wall, get the same rights as their zookeepers?

They need greater protection in the eyes of the law, says Ian Redmond of the UN's Great Apes Survival Project, who believes welfare groups could use guardianship as a way to rescue ill-treated apes.

Some rights are conferred on apes but only because they are endangered. And the international trade ban is flouted in Africa and South-East Asia, where mothers are shot and their infants shipped off as pets, circus performers or lab animals. Vivisection on apes is banned in much of Europe but still goes on in the US and Japan.

"Apes are special because they are so closely related to us," says Mr Redmond. "Chimpanzees and bonobos are our joint closest living relatives, differing by only one per cent of DNA - so close we could accept a blood transfusion or a kidney. Gorillas are next, then orang-utans."

Charlotte Uhlenbroek
If you take a chimp away from its family groups it's a real wrench
Charlotte Uhlenbroek

But there is a stronger cognitive argument, he says, because the apes' intelligence and ability to reason demands our respect.

"Show a gibbon a mirror and the reaction suggests he or she thinks the reflection is another gibbon. But all the great apes have passed the 'mirror self-recognition' test and soon begin checking their teeth or examining parts of their body they couldn't see without the mirror. This self-awareness surely suggests that they know they exist."

Family ties

Apes also share a range of human emotions, says zoologist Charlotte Uhlenbroek, who thinks they should be afforded legal protection enshrined in law.

The great apes: Status check

They have a similar lifespan to humans and form strong family bonds which they maintain for life, she says. And apes have displayed a tenderness which could be described as love, anxiety when separated, and fear, jealousy and trauma.

"If I was an alien from Mars and looked at human society and a society of apes then in terms of the emotional life I would see no distinct difference, although we live very different lives because of language and technology."

Giving them rights does not mean throwing open all the cage doors because some zoos are important to preserve the species, but it is vital to establish a principle that apes should not be treated like objects, she says.

Daniel Sokol, a medical ethicist, says apes possess cognitive and emotional faculties that make them worthy of moral consideration.

Orang-utan (pic supplied by Ian Redmond)
Orang-utans can kiss and cuddle

"Justice and consistent thinking require that we treat non-human animals who share morally-relevant properties in a respectful way, and that surely means giving them the opportunity to flourish and not be tortured or subject to cruel or degrading treatment."

But Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University of London, says human rights are a construct which can't be imposed on animals.

"Where do you stop? It seems to be that being human is unique and nothing to do with biology. Say that apes share 98% of human DNA and therefore should have 98% of human rights. Well mice share 90% of human DNA. Should they get 90% of human rights? And plants have more DNA than humans."

Steve Jones
I've yet to see a chimp imprisoned for stealing a banana
Professor Steve Jones

Chimps can't speak but parrots can. Defining creatures and allowing them rights based on criteria invented by one group is itself an enormous breach of human rights, he says, and one need look no further than Austria in 1939 to see why.

"Rights and responsibilities go together and I've yet to see a chimp imprisoned for stealing a banana because they don't have a moral sense of what's right and wrong. To give them rights is to give them something without asking for anything in return."

There is a moral case to make about animal welfare, he says, but it has nothing to do with science.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I accept the point about rights going with responsibilities, but only to an extent. Humans are usually granted certain rights even if they discard those responsibilities: even our worst criminals have the right not to be tortured and so on. I would therefore grant certain minimum rights to any creature that can pass the mirror recognition test: the right to life, food, water, a territory, etc. Obviously these rights would only apply to those animals in the care of or interacting with humans - we cannot be expected to police their own habitats.
Rich Smith, Uxbridge, Middlesex

These efforts at granting apes rights are based on the premise that humans and apes show advanced cognition and have evolved from a common ancestor. Until the evolution/creation debate can be satisfactorily resolved, it is premature to go ahead with this effort. If apes are granted rights similar to humans, it helps the supporters of evolution who will point to these rights as proof that the evolution debate has been settled by the community at large. Animal welfare is a good thing, but let's not forget the millions of humans who are suffering under sub-human conditions. If we can't take care of our own species, how realistic can we be of taking care of other species.
Clifford Gunapalan, Toronto, Canada

I agree that the great apes should definitely be accorded the legal rights to life and protection from torture, and that anyone who deliberately kills or tortures one should be punished. This may indeed start us down a slippery slope, but it is the right thing to do nonetheless.
Michael McClennen, Miami, Florida, US

I don't in any way support cruelty to animals but fail to see how it is possible to give animals the same rights as humans. It would seem to be difficult to enforce such rights because animals cannot communicate to say when their rights have been abused or violated. It is probably better to protect species, like apes, through animal protection regimes and endangered species regimes which provide protection from hunting and torture etc without needing to go as far as affording animals human rights.
Ruth, Glasgow

In places where human rights are guaranteed, you can talk of apes rights. In those places of the world where humans survive on less than 1 dollar a day, would they ever think of human rights for apes? Why are we more concerned about what's happening to apes than what's happening to humans.
Demola, Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria

Hmm, can't help wondering what Prof Jones' view on children is. It is entirely possible to have rights without being capable of exercising them or having responsibilities in return. Rights can be exercised on another's behalf. It depends if the right holder has the kind of interests that can be protected by rights. Given the capacities of apes, it would seem to me they could have interests that could give rise to rights, unless it can be said children have no rights either.
Sasha Ellis, Glasgow

That chimps share 99% of our genes is an oft-quoted statistic, but we also share 33% of our genes with Daffodils. Should we amend the Geneva Convention to indict over-zealous gardeners? The percentage of genes that we share with another species is not relevant to the fight for animal rights (a fight I support). There are many very, very good reasons to protect animal welfare, but genetics isn't one of them.
Craig, Montreal, Canada

I'm no DNA expert but I believe human DNA differs from that of a trout by about 1% too. Small differences in DNA make huge differences in the end results.
Paul Gray, Hamble, Hampshire

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Hiasl the chimp at his animal sanctuary in Austria


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