As homo-sapiens, we are undeniably members of the big taxonomic group known as the hominidae family. If you are capable of reading this, behaving socially, feeling, thinking, and of having a personality and characteristics that determine your own, personal and unchangeable individuality, then you must recognize yourself as a human being. The big hominidae family, also known as the “great apes”, has four surviving evolutionary descendant groups: chimpanzees and bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and humans. The similarities between us and the other great apes are noticeable by simply giving a quick glance. Furthermore, the social behavior, abilities and even mental capacities of the other great apes are comparable to our own; no expert can deny this. According to the Great Ape Project, an international organization that advocates for great ape personhood, the DNA between two human beings can be up to 0.5% different. Between a human and a chimpanzee, the genetic difference is of only 1.23%. Such is the similarity, that chimpanzees can actually donate blood to humans and vice-versa. However, what is this great ape personhood that was referred to?
Generally speaking, great ape personhood is the idea that all great apes should enjoy certain inherent rights. It is a relatively new movement which basically seeks to grant personhood and legal protections to all of the other members of the hominidae family. This may seem as an extravagant idea: how can apes be considered humans? But what the movement wants is not to say that human beings are exactly like their taxonomic ‘cousins’, but that they should all be considered as persons under the law, and therefore enjoy rights that must be respected and defended.
One of the first arguments great ape personhood advocates use to support their claims is that of personality. All animals have a behavioral pattern, and each member of the animal group has a distinct personality. For example, dogs engage their activities in a certain way, but different canines will behave differently: some will be more aggressive, others more tame, and so on. A recent University of Edinburgh study mentioned in a BBC article suggests that non-human great apes share similar personalities as human beings, so they should therefore be respected as such. All great apes are individuals; they are all persons and should be recognized as such. Furthermore, the advocates state that chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas are never perceived as pets precisely because of their inherent traits. It’s hard to imagine one saying: “I own that chimpanzee”. Great apes are given names, and are mostly referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’, not ‘it’. Under most of the current law, great apes can be considered property, just like objects. They are not “persons”, but legal “property”, tools and objects for human purposes.
Another compelling argument is that, legally in the US, corporations qualify as persons. Why not then, our closest genetic relatives? They also state that in the past, humanity has enslaved creatures and even other human beings because they were ‘inferior’. According to them, this is what’s happening with apes. Great apes are portrayed as brutes, but they are reasonable creatures. There are several more reasons why great ape personhood advocates suggest this legal change, but one of the most important of them is that it will lay down a precedent on animal rights and cruelty. If one animal is protected by personhood laws, eventual absolute wildlife protection will follow.
Certainly, there are counter-arguments to the great ape personhood movement. Most of them refer to the fact that society cannot grant personhood rights to non-human beings. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Declaration of the Rights of the Child and conventions related to nationality are challenged when assigning personhood to an animal. The advocates wish to protect the great apes, but by granting them a “person” status, many burdens and loopholes arise. Controversy also appears because some animal rights activist see the great ape movement as an example of speciesism (giving values, rights and considerations to individuals based solely on their species). Humans are quite speciesist creatures, and by granting special considerations to only members of the hominidae family, specimen is put in practice. Many regard this practice as terrible as racism, because judgments are made based on species, just as in racial prejudices. Others state that the correct solution is to stop thinking in “black” and “white” (non-human and human), but rather seeing humanity as a spectrum or continuum where animals coexist. Furthermore, the question of what happens to recognized person-great apes who commit crimes such as murder exists. Should they be punished just like humans? Or should they be recognized as persons but be kept in their natural habitat?
Great ape rights are very controversial. It is difficult to take sides in the argument, because we are somehow compelled by the sight of any member of the hominidae family in pain. Yet successes in the general protection of great apes have been made: the US CHIMP Act has saved hundreds of apes from scientific experimentation, euthanasia and exploitation. In Spain, chimpanzees and other primates enjoy human rights. In Great Britain and New Zealand, experiments on great apes are strictly forbidden. But one of the major issues that non-human great apes face continues: habitat loss. One of the reasons the struggle for great ape personhood arises is because chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans are suffering extinction. In Africa, home for most of the hominadae members, great ape habitat loss is rapidly increasing, and humans continuously interfere with their homes and ecosystems. Another cause for the great ape movement is that of scientific experimentation and abuse on primates. Practices which can be perceived as torture occur in laboratories, and it’s difficult to reinsert lab animals into the wild since their behavior changes. If we don’t intervene to protect wildlife now, some species will just disappear. This is what may happen with great apes. Regardless if you believe that they should be considered persons or not, it’s undeniable that they are being exploited, losing their habitats, their homes, and may eventually cease to exist altogether.
Take action to protect and help chimpanzee, gorilla and bonobo habitat in Africa:
Listen to a radio spot about Lucy, a chimpanzee educated and brought up as a human child:
Look for a great ape conservation organization which compels you, and volunteer, help!
Xavier A. Torres de Janon is an intern at EarthAction. He is currently attending Hampshire College, where he plans to focus his studies in international relations and affairs, global conflicts, peace and security, and human rights in general. In his free time, he knits and reads. He wants to learn more languages, about international and nonprofit organizations, study abroad, do voluntary humanitarian work, and gain more knowledge about effective ways to affect policy-making positively around the globe.