Proponents for the rights of chimpanzees are back in court to fight for the right of the animals to be considered people. In New York State, judges are listening to attorney Steve Wise as he argues to get a caged chimpanzee named Tommy out of his cage and into a sanctuary in Florida, on an island filled with other chimps. The court proceedings are being held to determine if each chimpanzee can be considered to be a person.
Wise is using habeas corpus as his preliminary argument. Habeas Corpus is Latin meaning “you have the body.” It is a writ that allows for people that are locked up to be brought before the court to determine if it unlawful to keep them detained. In this case, it is being used to say that the chimpanzees are unlawfully being detained because they are of mind and body. Wise, who works on the behalf of the Nonhuman Rights Project, or the NhRP, wants to gain person-hood rights to Tommy the 26 year-old chimpanzee. He is just one of a few chimpanzees that are attempting to get their person-hood rights attained. Two of the chimpanzees live in a cage on private property and two others are used for science at Stony Brook University.
The argument for the rights of chimpanzees on how personable or human-like these chimps has much research and data on just how close chimps are to humans. Jane Goodall, the first and most famous chimp researcher, has been an advocate for human-chimp similarities since her trials in Africa in the 1960’s. Not only do chimps have a 98.6% genetic similarity to humans and have the most similar bone and brain structures, but there are many other similarities that put humans and chimpanzees as close together as any.
The taxonomy is a good place to start, humans and chimps share the same order (primates) and suborder (Haplorrhines) that group us together. There is a shared reproduction system, 8 month pregnancies and sexual maturity. The bonds shared between mother and children show extreme emotional abilities within the primates. Emotion is an important ability in determining if something or someone is a person. Chimps have shown emotions such as: sadness, happiness, joy, fear, despair, attraction, embarrassment and pain. The emotions, all of which are important, are very similar emotions that humans have and use on a daily basis, especially when in the circumstances of being imprisoned.
Communication shows similarities and differences between humans and chimps. Chimpanzees do not have a vocal tract which do not allow them the ability to have a voice, although, chimps have similar ways to communicate as would a mute person. Chimpanzees can understand human language, but cannot speak it, they do have the ability to learn American Sign Language, and as much as up to 300 words of it. Even without words, there is a noticeable communication among mothers and children seen by the emotional bond between the families. There is kissing, embracing, tickling, shaking, all of which can be done with humans as well. Chimpanzee babies are similar to human babies in that they need attention. Reassurance, love from the parents. The mothers of the babies are seen as giving the babies all of the love and care that they need.
The most important characteristics of the chimpanzee family that make them human-like are their awareness abilities. Chimps are self-aware, unlike all other species besides humans, chimps know what they are and that they are something in the world. They also deal with depth perception, generalizations about the world around them. They have symbolic thoughts and abilities to plan ahead in the wild. They show the ability to grief for lost family members. All of the studies and data and arguments are up to the decision of the five judges in New York to decide if we will begin to classify Tommy, and possibly more chimpanzees, as persons.
By Evan Linneman
Photo By Kevin McCoy – Flickr License