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Citizen Ape: The Fight for Personhood for Our Closest Relatives

The great ape personhood movement aims to extend legal personhood to apes, a distinction that recognizes these non-human animals as beings with the capacity to hold both rights and duties.
An African chimpanzee grimaces in a cage at a zoo in Dehiwala near Colombo, Sri Lanka, on March 3rd, 2016, on World Wildlife Day.

An African chimpanzee grimaces in a cage at a zoo in Dehiwala near Colombo, Sri Lanka, on March 3rd, 2016, on World Wildlife Day.

Cecilia spent more than 30 years locked up without a trial. After the death of her companions, she spent her days and nights alone in a small cage with bare concrete walls and floor, unsheltered from the harsh weather of the Andes mountains.

Then, in 2016, Cecilia finally got her day in an Argentine court. Judge María Alejandra Mauricio took a stand against the way Cecilia was being treated at Mendoza Zoo. The judge recognized the female chimpanzee as a legal person with rights—not a human, but also not a "thing" to be used at will—and ordered that Cecilia be transferred from her solitary confinement to an animal sanctuary.

This historic ruling galvanized animal right activists and conservationists who have for years been challenging the status of the great apes in the court systems. The great ape personhood movement aims to improve the lot of chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans by extending legal personhood and some legal protections to these non-human members of the Hominidae family. In changing the legal status of apes, advocates also hope to change the way we think about and relate to non-human animals.

Ancient Roots

The idea that animals are not objects is far from new. It has strong roots in the beliefs of indigenous peoples from all over the world, from South America to Africa.

"In general terms, many indigenous peoples integrate animals as essential living beings into their worldviews, avoiding a clear-cut distinction between 'humans' and 'animals' as it is so common in our 'modern' civilizations," Markus Fraundorfer, a research fellow at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of International Relations, writes in an email.

In many indigenous traditions, animals are viewed and respected as sentient beings capable of emotions and intelligence. Thus, Fraundorfer argues, ape habitats administered by indigenous people are among the safest places remaining for the great apes.

Conservationists today are indeed trying to harness the power of indigenous taboos and other traditional knowledge to motivate local communities to protect great apes.

By contrast, modern, Western societies have tended to regard animals as things they can freely exploit and often abuse in the name of entertainment, profit or research.

Starting in the 1950s, though, primatologists such as Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birutė Galdikas started questioning the boundaries between human beings and the great apes. Their groundbreaking research among chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, respectively, led to a greater understanding of great apes, and their insights revolutionized not only science, but also our relationship with the species.

Another game changer was the 1975 book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, often referred to as the "bible" of the modern animal welfare movement. In 1993, Singer, now a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and often described as the most influential living philosopher, co-founded the Great Ape Project, to advocate for great apes to be granted rights such as life, liberty, and the prohibition of torture.

Since the 1970s, Singer has seen a change in attitudes toward great apes. "At least in the Western world, most people recognize that it is wrong to use great apes as if they were mere things, for example as laboratory tools for us to experiment on," he writes in an email. He said we now recognize that great apes are intelligent beings that form strong relationships and have rich emotional lives.

"Invasive experiments on great apes have essentially ceased, and the apes who lived in miserable laboratory cages, often in solitary confinement, have now been sent to sanctuaries where they are part of a social group and have much better lives," he writes.

Apes in Courts

Animals have not only been experimented on in laboratories; they have also been sentenced to death in courts. The earliest record of an animal execution comes from 1266, when the trial of an infanticidal pig took place in Fontenay-aux-Roses, France. In the Middle Ages, dogs, pigs, cows, horses, and bulls faced judges and, if found guilty of capital crimes, went routinely to the stake or gallows.

But now, activists are taking animals to the courts for a different purpose.

Since the early 1990s some countries have taken major steps to protect great apes and other animals. Switzerland amended its constitution in 1992 to recognize animals as beings and not things. In 1999, New Zealand granted strong protections to great apes, and, as a result, their use is today forbidden in research, testing, or teaching. Subsequently, several European countries, including Austria, the Netherlands, and Sweden, completely banned the use of great apes in animal testing.

Then, Germany guaranteed rights to animals in a 2002 amendment to its constitution, becoming the first European Union member state to do so. In 2007, the parliament of the Balearic Islands, an autonomous region of Spain, passed the world's first legislation that would effectively grant legal personhood rights to all great apes.

In 2014, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that all non-human animals have both statutory and constitutional rights in India. That was followed by a 2015 decision from the Delhi High Court that birds have the fundamental legal right to fly, and a 2018 decision from the Uttarakhand High Court that identified members of the entire animal kingdom as persons.

In late 2014, Argentina granted a captive orangutan "non-human person rights," and in 2016 the chimpanzee Cecilia was granted legal personhood.

"[I]n the present case we are not stating that sentient beings—animals—are the same as human beings, and we are not raising to a human category all existent animals or flora and fauna, we are recognizing and confirming that primates are non-human legal persons and they possess fundamental rights that should be studied and listed by state authorities," reads Mauricio's ruling.

"I applaud this bold decision and hope that in time it will be followed by other judges all over the world," Singer writes. But he added that many legislators still "appear to be concerned about getting too far ahead of public opinion" and "could be bolder."

Singer said he believed that personhood should not depend on species membership. The chief objective of the movement to grant legal personhood to great apes, he writes, is to bridge the gulf between humans and other animals by recognizing that it is not only human beings who are persons and who should have the legal rights of persons.

"If people claim that great apes are not as rational as humans are, or cannot use language as we can, we can reply that we do not deny personhood to human beings who lack the ability to reason or to use language," he writes.

Singer's Animal Liberation changed the lives of many people around the world. One of them is Steven Wise, who, after reading it, became overnight an animal protection lawyer. Wise today is an animal rights lawyer and scholar. He is also founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), which works to secure legally recognized fundamental rights for non-human animals. Among its board members is the pioneering primatologist Goodall, and its potential clients are not only individual great apes, but also elephants, dolphins, and whales living in captivity across the United States.

"The Nonhuman Rights Project argues that they are autonomous beings who can choose how to live their lives, that autonomy is a quality that judges and legislatures value highly and believe it is their job to protect," Wise says.

The University of São Paulo's Fraundorfer says the great ape personhood movement could play an important role in saving the great apes from extinction by changing the way we look at non-human animals. This, he says, can support the emergence of new ideas about how we, as human animals, view ourselves in relation to non-human animals and the planet as a whole. By extension, these new ways of thinking might be able to affect how we tackle global challenges like climate change and the devastation of the environment, Fraundorfer says.

But he says he also fears that the human-animal divide and the neoliberal market ideology are too deeply entrenched in the fabric of modern society. In a system driven by market dynamics, where regulations to protect nature are often seen as barriers to progress, it might already be too late to save the great apes from extinction and protect what's left of the planet's biodiversity. "In other words, it might be too late for saving us from ourselves," Fraundorfer says.

"The struggle for legal personhood for great apes is one of many possible ways to protect [great apes]" NhRP's Wise says, adding that, in the state of New York, the NhRP is making good progress in persuading judges to view chimpanzees as persons with legal rights.

The NhRP has already begun to set up and collaborate with legal working groups in Britain, Spain, France, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Portugal, Argentina, Israel, Turkey, India, and Australia to develop non-human rights campaigns suited to the respective legal systems of these countries. It is also looking to expand into the countries where apes are still found in nature.

"The NhRP is just beginning to work in the range countries. We hope, with others, to persuade government[s] to recognize the personhood and legal rights of great apes as part of the struggle to protect them," Wise says.

"If we were to recognize that some non-human animals are persons," Singer says, "it would radically change the way we see ourselves and our relationship with the other beings with whom we share this planet."

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.