The Great Ape Debate: Do Nonhumans Deserve Civil Rights?

While traditional discussions of civil rights and legal personhood tend to conjure thoughts of wronged prisoners and corporate tax write-offs, a global network of professionals are fighting to change that idea to include something a little less human.

Believe it or not, for more than two decades lawyers, primatologists, anthropologists and others have led a global movement to expand the legal definition of personhood to include great apes (that is; chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and bonobos).

American ethicist Peter Singer and Italian philosopher Paola Cavalieri founded The Great Ape Project in 1993, leading the effort in promoting great ape personhood. 

Countless studies have documented evidence showing that great apes have advanced cognitive abilities, giving them numerous similarities to our own species. Some of these include the ability to recall the past and plan for the future, the capacity to communicate using sign language, and having self-awareness and control.

The movement has seen several major wins in the past few years including the passage of a declaration of Great Ape personhood and civil rights by the Spanish Parliament in 2008, as well as in 2014 when an Argentinian court granted Sandra, a 29-year-old orangutan, a habeas corpus petition.

Efforts in the United States to secure great ape personhood and protection from indefinite detention have progressed more slowly. Most recently, in May of 2018, judges with the Court of Appeal for the State of New York upheld a lower court decision on a 5-0 ruling holding that chimpanzees are not persons. While this may seem like a blistering defeat to some, the published opinions tell a different story. In a stirring conclusion to his concurring opinion, Judge Eugene Fahey makes it clear the issue is far from settled;

“In the interval since we first denied leave to the Nonhuman Rights Project (see 26 NY3d 901 [2015]; 26 NY3d 902 [2015]), I have struggled with whether this was the right decision. Although I concur in the Court’s decision to deny leave to appeal now, I continue to question whether the Court was right to deny leave in the first instance. The issue whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us. Ultimately, we will not be able to ignore it. While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a “person,” there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”


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