As Courts Deny Rights to Chimps, We Should Think About What Makes Us Human

Humans are probably the most invasive species. We somehow gain a foothold in whatever environment we happen to find ourselves in. I guess that’s why there are about seven billion of us. That type of dexterity, though, means that we have a lot of power over our fellow Earth-dwellers. I’m not just talking about our guns and bulldozers and pollution. It turns out our social systems have a lot of power over animals, as well.

According to Wired, a court recently denied legal rights to a chimpanzee for the third time in less than a year. In this particular case, the NonHuman Rights Project asked that Kiko, a chimpanzee owned by a couple from Niagra Falls, be granted the right of habeas corpus, or the right to challenge unjust imprisonment.

Captive chimps were denied habeas corpus twice before Kiko’s case. In the first, the court determined that the NonHuman Rights Project was not legally allowed to file the petition on the chimp’s behalf. In the second, the court determined that, since a chimp doesn’t have any responsibilities in society, they can’t have rights either.

The court in Kiko’s case adopted still another rationale. Attorneys for Kiko wanted to transfer him from a cage to a chimp sanctuary. The judge in this case decided that, regardless of whether they accept the argument that chimps are enough like people to be granted habeas corpus rights, those rights don’t extend to just changing the venue of confinement. So relief was denied.

These types of cases get me thinking about what separates us from animals, if anything at all. We’re not the only animals that use tools, have social systems and cultures, grieve, or are enchanted by the charms of a kitten. The more we look into the internal lives of animals, the less different we become.

At the same time, I know that it’s dangerous to anthropomorphize animals. The social norms of humans have as much to do with other primates as their social norms have to do with us. One doesn’t necessarily say anything about the other.

Animals aren’t human, but what does that mean? Does that mean that we, as the undisputed superpower species on the planet, just get to do whatever we want? That it’s our right as a species to dominate all others?

For most animals, the human-animal distinction is easy to make, but for others, like great apes, the distinction gets fuzzier. While comparing the intelligence of one species to another is inherently tricky (what is intelligence, anyway?), we do know that chimps, gorillas and orangutans are really smart. They exhibit abstract thought and language use. They use tools and have culture.

Really, these similarities shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. We are, after all, great apes. Perhaps we’ve set ourselves apart from our cousins for so long that we’ve forgotten where we came from.

I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t know where the line should be drawn, or if a line should be drawn at all. The question gets complicated when you realize that there are a bunch of super intelligent animals out there, like whales and dolphins and elephants. Should we even be using intelligence as a measure of which animal species deserve certain rights? Is it relevant for some animals but not others? Can a legal system — developed by humans, for humans — really meet the needs of non-human animals?

Perhaps there are no easy answers, but these are important questions to ask ourselves. Maybe if we take a long look at ourselves, we’ll realize that we are not positioned above other species, but living along side them.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

86 comments

Jim Ven
Jim Ven4 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Cheryl coscia
cheryl coscia4 years ago

What is the matter with these people. These primates do not belong in captivity. They are not cute little things to show visitors or to play with when you're bored. Primates live in a highly complex society and we humans cannot provide that. Free the Chimp.

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Angev GERIDONI
Angev GERIDONI4 years ago

ANOTHER THREAT on Petropolis animals, they need again your help
to stop a project of a vivarium for laboratory. You know what's
happened to the horses in the streets outside, imagine for pets in cages. Please sign the new petition here :
STOP Petropolis vivarium project
☞ Read more, and help our fight on : Facebook

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wendy giangregorio

"Animals aren’t human, but what does that mean? Does that mean that we, as the undisputed superpower species on the planet, just get to do whatever we want? That it’s our right as a species to dominate all others?" - Very well said. I absolutely agree that - "Maybe if we take a long look at ourselves, we’ll realize that we are not positioned above other species, but living along side them." Thanks for this, more people need to put more thought into what being human means and start showing and doing what we, as humans, can do to better every life on earth. We aren't all that matters here.

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Monica Buchanan
Monica Buchanan4 years ago

ty

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Sherri S.
Sherri S4 years ago

"a chimp doesn’t have any responsibilities in society". Does a baby/child have responsibilities in society? No, not until they become old enough to attend school. Does he/she have rights? YES.....ALWAYS!


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Georgina Elizab McAlliste
.4 years ago

ty

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Julia Cabrera-Woscek

Creatures are to be free. This is insensitive, callous and egocentric.

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Penny Scott
penny Scott4 years ago

Too bad empathy is not a more valued trait. Could we test for it? Publish compassion and empathy scores of those running for office?

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William Moorman
William Moorman4 years ago

If you are not a talking monkey you are an animal according to the Gov and who would know best.

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