Chimps are people too, insists scientist
May 5, 2007, 6:41 pm
Filed under: Interesting Chimp Stories


AN EXPERT on primates is to tell a court that apes are people, in a groundbreaking case that will determine whether a chimp can have human rights.

Jane Goodall, known worldwide for her study of chimpanzee social and family life, has agreed to testify that apes deserve the same treatment as humans.

The case has been filed in an Austrian court by Paula Stibbe, 38, a Briton who wants to become the legal guardian of a chimp called Matthew. The case was accepted by the court before officials realised Matthew was a primate, but their efforts to have it dismissed have failed.

The case centres around money given to Matthew by a well-wisher to safeguard his future after the animal home where he lived went bust. Ms Stibbe and her lawyers say he should have the same rights as a child and have a guardian to help him spend it. Ms Stibbe said: “Matthew likes watching TV and videos and playing games like any child, and can use signs and gestures to say what he wants. Of course he has the right to be recognised as an individual.”

This is the second legal action in Europe to address whether primates should be guaranteed human rights; the Socialist government in Spain has proposed a law to allow moral guardianship of great apes, akin to the care for severely disabled or comatose people.

Ms Stibbe moved to Vienna nine years ago and shortly afterwards got involved in helping to care for Matthew. He and another chimpanzee, called Rosie, share a room at an animal shelter in Voesendorf, south of Vienna. They were seized by customs officers and given to the sanctuary after being imported by a pharmaceuticals company, which wanted to use them for HIV research. When a court ordered the sanctuary to hand the chimps back, animal rights campaigners staged a mass protest, and the company gave up.

The pair, both now 26, have lived at the sanctuary since then, but when it went bankrupt, an anonymous donor gave several thousand pounds to Matthew to safeguard his future.

Dr Martin Balluch, an animal rights campaigner who instructed lawyers to file for guardianship for Ms Stibbe, said: “

We argue that chimps are part of the same genus as humans and that they also incorporate all the characteristics to justify personhood, in that they recognise and anticipate the rights and needs of other individuals.”

The court will make a decision on how to proceed once documents on Matthew’s background are provided.

A move to have the case thrown out failed after expert testimony running to dozens of pages seemed to back Matthew’s rights to human status.

The experts pointed out that chimps differ from humans by only 1 per cent of their genetic material, can accept a blood transfusion and can learn and use human languages through signs or symbols – although they lack the vocal dexterity to master speech.

Not all experts agree, however. Steve Jones, a professor of genetics at the University of London, said human rights did not apply to animals, adding: “If you start, where do you stop? Being human is unique and nothing to do with biology. Mice share 90 per cent of human DNA. Should they get 90 per cent of human rights? And plants have more DNA than humans. Chimps can’t speak, but parrots can – should they have rights too?”

Donald Gow, a primate keeper at Edinburgh Zoo, said: “This is a debate that won’t go away. But Edinburgh Zoo believes that chimps are best left alone by humans. We have a chimp called Ricky who spent the first five years of his life on board a ship in the merchant marine. He still displays human behaviour and has not been fully accepted by the other chimps”.

• CHIMPANZEES and humans differ by just over 1 per cent of DNA, and there are striking similarities in the composition of the blood and the immune responses. In fact, biologically, chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas.

The chimpanzee (along with the gorilla and bonobo) is capable of intellectual performances once thought unique to humans. In the wild, they are capable of sophisticated co-operation in hunting. They use more tools for more purposes than any other creatures except ourselves. And they show the beginning of tool-making behaviour.

In captivity, chimpanzees can be taught human languages such as ASL (American Sign Language), learning 300 or more signs, and there are uncanny similarities in the nonverbal communication patterns of chimps and humans – examples include kissing, embracing, patting on the back, touching hands, tickling, swaggering, shaking the fist and brandishing sticks.



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