Tristan Gatward, Online Music Editor, discusses the need for rights for Chimps. They have feelings and thoughts, so why not rights too? This was based on the work of lawyer, Steve Wise, who worked tirelessly for years to change the status of Chimps from ‘things’ to ‘persons’. You can watch this inspirational TedTalk here.
Early in my childhood I was introduced to nonsensical jokes. My father’s favourite was: “what is the difference between a duck?” Looks of confusion entered with more grace than a Christian mealtime prayer, before a contented answer, “one of its legs is both the same”. Even Microsoft Word’s green grammar line struggles to understand it, but here’s one even more nonsensical: what do pencils, books, cars, women and children have in common?
The answer? They are, or have been at one time in history, a legal “thing”. These “things” are invisible to judges; they don’t count in law, have no legal rights or capacity for legal rights thereof, and are, as Steven Wise alleged in a TEDtalk last March, the slaves. On the other side of this legal fence, explains Wise, are the legal “persons”. These “persons” are very visible to judges; they count in law, have many rights, a capacity for an infinite number of rights, and are the slave masters. Yet what is the difference between legal “things” and apes? Currently, nothing.
It doesn’t appear to be a matter of semantics. A legal “person” is far from synonymous with a human being. American corporations are legal persons; in pre-independence India, idols and mosques had a legal voice, so too do the holy books of the Sikh religion according to a ruling from the Indian High Court at the turn of the Millennium. In 2012, an agreement signed between the Crown and the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand now recognises the Whanganui River as a legal person, which owns its riverbed.
Far from wanting to discredit these “new laws of nature”, as Clare Kendell described Ecuador’s new constitution delivering legal rights to rivers, forests and air, it only goes to further Steven Wise’s case. At what point should the hole in the legal fence – that saw women and children feed though from “things” to “persons” – be comprehensively reopened for the appropriate nonhuman animals?
Wise talks back to a case 250 years ago between James Somerset, an eight year-old boy kidnapped from West Africa, and Charles Stewart, a Scottish businessman in Virginia to whom he was sold. 20 years later, Stewart brought Somerset to London, where Somerset decided he would try to escape. First, he became baptised with a set of godparents, whose responsibility was to help him escape. In Autumn 1771, Somerset and Stewart had a confrontation and Somerset went missing, to be found chained to the slave ship Ana Maria, where he’d be taken to Jamaica to harvest sugar cane.
At this point, Somerset’s godparents approached Lord Mansfield, chief judge of the Court of King’s Bench, demanding him to issue a common law writ of habeas corpus on behalf of James Somerset. This Great Writ is meant to protect anyone detained against his or her will, where the detainer is then required to offer a legal reason for detaining the subject against their bodily liberty. A series of court cases commenced, but with a slave condemned to the status of a legal “thing”, a habeas corpus wouldn’t be legitimised. Lord Mansfield, however, viewed slavery so “odious”, that he ordered Somerset free. Wise describes the Somerset who originally walked into the court case, in terms of legal rights, as a man who had nothing in common with the same man who walked out.
Liberty rights are entitled by how you’re put together, resting upon the two founding fathers of self-determination and autonomy. Wise correlates that a judge won’t force life-saving treatment upon a patient that refuses it. Equality rights are entitled due to the resemblance of someone else in a relevant way.
Here is where the science weaves into the law in a way that should entrust a moral duty upon accepting the rights of chimpanzees: drawing a line to enslave an autonomous non-human being, like chimps, is a violation of equality. The extraordinary cognitive capabilities chimpanzees have directly resemble the cognitive behaviour (the process of acquiring knowledge through thought, experience and the senses) of humans.
- They are conscious, and conscious that they are conscious;
- They know that they have a mind;
- They know that they’re individuals;
- They understand that they live;
- They can anticipate;
- They have some moral capacity;
- They are numerate;
- They can engage in language;
- They involved in intentional and referential communications in which they pay attention to the attitudes of those with whom they’re speaking;
- They have a material, social and symbolic culture.
Scientists found that chimpanzees in the Ivory Coast’s Taï Forest were using rocks to smash open hard hulls of nuts. An excavation showed that this material culture, and these rocks, had passed down 4300 years across 225 generations of chimpanzee. The Nonhuman Rights Project, founded by Wise, launched three suits across the state of New York, seeking to free four imprisoned chimpanzees, using the same common law writ of habeas corpus argument. These cases are still on-going, in a world where a river is considered more legally similar to a human than an ape is.