Before you assume the chimps’ lawyers are nuts and want apes to join the United Nations, take a look at this description from their website:
Do not confuse these fundamental rights of nonhuman animals with so-called ‘human rights.’ Human rights are for humans. Chimpanzee rights are for chimpanzees. Dolphin rights are for dolphins. Elephant rights are for elephants.”
What these rights entail is “not being held in captivity” and “not being touched without consent or in one’s best interests,” which refers to medical research and forced performances. The group says they advocate for “animals for whom there is clear scientific evidence of such complex cognitive abilities as self-awareness and autonomy. Currently that evidence exists for elephants, dolphins and whales, and all four species of great apes.”
While I realize some medical breakthroughs depend on animal research, it does leave me queasy. I’m reminded of Christiaan Barnard, the heart transplant pioneer, who stopped using chimps in his work because he couldn’t bear their suffering. One of my favorite childhood books was Beautiful Joe (I’m not that old! I found it in Grandma’s house and pleased to see it’s still available), an 1893 book that was part of that era’s fight against cruelty to animals. The movement lives on in the Humane Society and countless laws and ordinances. You only have to imagine the reaction if someone started beating a dog in a public park to realize our society has profoundly changed its views on animals. Today we see animal abuse as a sign of pathology, of a sick mind and soul.
Science can help us understand animals, but it can’t tell us how we should treat them. The Nonhuman Rights Project focuses on sentient animals, but animal rights are a larger concern. I eat meat, and I’m willing to pay more at the grocery store for animals to be treated humanely – I think. I still bypass the free-range chicken for cheaper packages – I tell myself I don’t trust the labeling to reflect better lives for chickens. I’ve been to SeaWorld despite controversy. I keep pets. I wonder if, in another hundred years, I’ll be viewed as a barbarian.
Update: Two years after retiring most of its research chimpanzees, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is ceasing its chimp programme altogether… The 50 NIH-owned animals that remain… will be sent to sanctuaries. The agency will also develop a plan for phasing out NIH support for the remaining chimps that are supported by, but not owned by, the NIH.
Another Update: Seaworld is ending their killer whale shows and will stop breeding the whales in captivity. Since they stopped taking whales from the wild years ago, the orcas now at Seaworld will be their last.