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Should Apes Have Legal Rights?

Source: Alex Prager for the New York Times

The prisoner sits in his cell, staring at the cracks of light filtering through the bars. His dark black coat does nothing against the cold and damp of the cage. He’s bored. He paces, hopping on one leg then the other. The prisoner picks a flea off his body. As he wonders if he will ever be released from his confinement, he pops the flea into his mouth. Yum. If not already clear, our prisoner, Tommy, is not human…rather, Tommy is a chimpanzee. Does Tommy have the legal right to be released from his prison?

Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being places animals lower than humans because they do not have rational thought. However, many studies of animals, and of apes in particular, have proved otherwise. Geneticists working with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History have been studying humans and chimpanzees (members of the great apes sub-species) for years. They found that only a 1.6 percent difference exists between their DNA sequences, which means that humans and chimpanzees are more similar to each other than chimpanzees are to other monkeys. Chimps can also organize objects, match people with their voices, and use tools, according to a 2010 study by Tetsuro Matsuzawa. Great apes, like humans, form strong family and community bonds. This leaves us with a question: If apes are so similar to humans, then why aren’t we awarding them legal rights?

While the idea might sound radical and a bit crazy, animals have been treated as humans in some courts of law for hundreds of years. In medieval times, pigs that roamed streets and sometimes attacked children were held responsible for their actions in a trial. In 1906, an attack dog was condemned along with its owners for robbery and homicide. Even now, some animal protection laws do exist. For example, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, in the state of California it is illegal to poison, kill, injure, or abandon pets ( These laws differ, however, in that they do not give primarily humanrights to nonhumans. In 2011, PETA attempted to apply the 13th amendment to 5 orcas being held in captivity when they filed a lawsuit against Sea World. A U.S. District Court in Southern California dismissed the case on the grounds that the Constitution applies only to humans.

The question of giving animals human rights resurfaced recently, when in December of 2013, lawyer Steven Wise brought a petition to the Fulton County Courthouse in New York. The petition is written on behalf of Tommy, an ape being kept in a cage in Gloversville, NY. What makes Wise’s case different than the 2011 PETA case? He is backed by nine primatologists who are experts in the human-like capabilities of primates such as Tommy. While Tommy’s case was rejected by the Justice, Wise is planning on bringing the petition to a Court of Appeals, where he believes he will have more success.

Tommy’s case raises a lot of questions. How can we determine which animals are similar enough to humans to be eligible for the same rights? Do ants deserve the same rights as chimpanzees? Tommy’s case also speaks to a deeper underlying question that humans have grappled with for centuries: what does being “human” mean? Is it a human form, or the ability to reason? These questions, and many more, will continue to percolate throughout the legal system as Tommy’s case moves forward. As these issues become more pressing, I invite you to give them some thought as well.


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