Gorillas Chasing Bubbles: Spain Enters New Age of Enlightenment

If all goes well, next Wednesday, 28 June, the Cortes Generales, the Spanish Parliament, will “liberate” four species of apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans. Michele Stumpe, an American attorney who is the president of Great Ape Project, International, is overjoyed. She sent us the following comment:

Michele Stumpe

In a groundbreaking move that would mark it as a champion of animal rights, Spain is considering granting legal rights to great apes at the end of this month. Although this proposed extension of legal rights has generated widespread international support, it has also been met with a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding.

Under current legal systems throughout the world, great apes are considered mere property, like a chair, a car, or a computer. Their owners and others can do virtually anything they wish to them without significant repercussion. As such, granting them legal rights is the only way to ensure the protections necessary to guarantee great apes freedom from torture, mistreatment and unnecessary death.

To be clear, the extension of legal rights to great apes does not mean that they would share the same rights now available only to humans. No, chimpanzees won’t be seen in voting booths. Rather, these laws simply recognize basic legal protections consistent with biological and scientific evidence that great apes possess a high level of consciousness and self-awareness similar to the level found in human children.  They experience intense emotions such as fear, anxiety, happiness as well as grief over the loss of loved ones. They develop long term relationships, become depressed when separated from their families, can independently solve puzzles that confound human children, and can create and use tools. They recognize the past and plan for their future. They hug and kiss to make up. They learn to communicate in a different language, express their feelings and desires, and unilaterally teach their new language to their children.

I have personally witnessed many of these qualities. In my experiences with great apes over the past 20 years, some of my fondest memories involve the laughter of gorillas chasing bubbles, or their chuckles after succeeding in their attempts at humor.  Seeing the severe depression experienced by a baby chimpanzee taken from his mother or an adult who has been the subject of painful testing is a heart-wrenching experience.

The Catholic Church and Amnesty International have stated their opposition to the proposal. They argue that granting legal rights to great apes is unconscionable in light of the current lack of protections afforded to some humans. However, while the plight of humans who are oppressed is certainly horrific, is it morally right to allow the continued torture and mistreatment of great apes simply because the proposed legislation does not right the wrongs of humankind around the world? We do not have to choose between helping humans or helping other animals – we can do both.

Another concern is whether the Spanish resolution will interfere with important medical research. However, the scientific community has widely agreed that while the great apes are more genetically similar to humans than any other species (which explains the similarity in self-awareness, conscious decision making, and emotional states); the genetic differences render them poor research subjects. In fact, their use in research has proven to be of no significant benefit to human health and has, at times, been a detriment. This proposition is so well recognized that Europe has ceased all medical research on great apes.
Recognizing rights of great apes does not mean that they would all be set free. Nor does it rule out the possibility of euthanasia if it is in the interest of an individual ape whose suffering cannot be relieved. Rather, these fundamental rights would simply require “owners” to become guardians with a legal responsibility to consider each great ape's best interest at all times. For example, great apes that are tortured or mistreated would be entitled to removal to a healthier environment, much like a child who is abused.

We stand at an important crossroad. The choices we make will be a revelation of our true moral character of humankind. Are we too self-absorbed to stop the oppression of those beings who, despite an undeniable ability to experience fear and a conscious awareness of their plight, cannot speak for themselves? Spain’s serious consideration of this issue is a sign of hope. Perhaps June 28, 2006, will be the beginning of a new age of enlightenment.

It is notable that one of the rights granted to great apes is euthanasia. We wonder whether they will also get the right to abortion, widely taken advantage of by Spaniards to such an extent that abortion is the main cause of death in Spain and the country now has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. We hope the apes do not get abortion rights, because it would be a pity if these fine animals became extinct shortly after the “enlightened” Spaniards.

Meanwhile, two questions raised by Dr. Jos Verhulst in an earlier article on this website, still stand: Why do the Spanish not grant the same rights to other smart and self-aware animals like, for instance, pigs, dolphins or jackdaws? Are these animals being “discriminated against” merely because they are biologically less related to humans? And how does one determine the degree of relatedness to humans that is necessary for an animal to acquire human rights, i.e. why are these rights granted to great apes but not to lesser apes, some of which use tools as well?


More on this topic:

Spain May Grant Human Rights to Apes, 27 April 2006


If apes are given rights, can they also be taken to court?

Ms. Stumpe justifies her plea for granting human rights to animals by
pointing out their similarities with humans: bubble-blowing gorillas
and chuckling chimpanzees are regarded as (nearly) human. Humans,
however, not only have rights but also duties. Many, moreover, would
argue that aggressive behaviour is greater proof of (near) humanity
than bubble-blowing and chuckling. In the Dutch zoo of Apeldoorn
recently a gang of Squirrel Monkeys were wont to gather in one spot and
plan attacks on weaker species, namely toddlers and invalids, pushing
them out of their pushchairs to steal their food. The animals were
well-coordinated and acquired their expertise over several years of
this type of activity

Following an avalanche of complaints the zoo is now trying to prevent the violence
by… declaring the ape section a pushchair-free zone. Rather than deny
the victims access to parts of the zoo, shouldn’t the zoo ensure that
the apes receive punishment and pay damages? In a world without
discrimination between animals and humans the least one may expect is
that the perpetrators receive punishment and relinquish their violent
behaviour. Or would Ms. Stumpe eliminate discrimination by abolishing
duties for humans and solve crime simply by telling the victims to
avoid the criminals?