Human rights for chimps?

Should chimps be freed from inappropriate, solitary housing as ‘pets’ or as entertainers? Should chimpanzees have human rights? These seem like two different questions, but they weren’t mutually exclusive in a court in New York state yesterday. Steve Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project are attempting to use human rights law to have a chimp, Tommy, removed from his owner and placed in a sanctuary.1

The Nonhuman Rights Project is arguing that members of other species should have legal rights such as bodily integrity and bodily liberty2. They argue that some non-human animals should stop being treated by law as ‘things’ and start to be recognised as ‘persons’. But if a chimpanzee gains human rights, can it do human ‘wrongs’?

Well, the first point to make here is that not all humans would be judged capable of committing a crime. In many jurisdictions there is an assumption that an individual must be capable of reasoning rationally and morally. Some individuals – such as young children or those with certain mental disabilities – are regarded as outside of this.3 Would a chimpanzee ever be capable of passing this test?

Over this summer, along with a range of wonderful, talented people, I have developed a show that is designed to examine this exact question. The scenario is simple enough – a chimp has killed another, something that we know chimpanzees do.4 The audience is the jury, academics are expert witnesses and a couple of us are the lawyers.

The topics are broad. We know that chimpanzees are a remarkable, intelligent and social species, but do chimps have cultural norms? Do they have morals? Do they view others as chimps like them or simply as other objects in the environment? The answers to these questions are complicated to answer because we can’t just ask a chimp what they think. They are also complex because different researchers interpret the results from their observations and experiments differently. Similarly, the questions and debates that the show raises from the jury and witnesses is also complex and change subtly each time we run it.

The issues above are, surely, the same ones that will feature in the judges’ decision making in Albany over the next few weeks. Is chimp cognition sufficiently similar to that of humans to be called a ‘person’? I am not sure of that we can show that it is. I can understand why the Nonhuman Rights Project have chosen to use human rights law and have invoked judgements that brought an end to slavery, but the question remains in my mind: why is there not an animal rights law to deal with this? How is it possible that a chimpanzee in America can be used in the entertainment industry and then discarded to a life of solitary confinement? That shouldn’t need a ‘human right’ to stop it; that should need common sense (and common law).

1 Accessed 9th October
2 Accessed 9th October
3Cubie A.M. (2010) Scots Criminal Law (Third Edition). Bloomsbury Professional, London
4 Wilson M.L. et al. Lethal aggression in Pan is better explained by adaptive strategies than human impacts. Nature, 513, 414-417


2 thoughts on “Human rights for chimps?

  1. Are you kidding me, April 1st was 21 days ago. We sensible human beings need to start running this country again. I think the loony left wing homosapians are starting to believe ther own crazy talk.

    1. I don’t think that animal welfare is a ‘loony’ idea. There will, of course, be debate about how to best protect animals, but I don’t think that suitable protection for these remarkably intelligent and social animals is crazy talk.

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