Jan 02

Human Rights for Great Apes

Recognition of Self—

“Beings who recognize themselves as ‘I’s.’ Those are persons.” Immanuel Kant’s philosophy according to philosophy professor Lori Gruen of Wesleyan University.

 Great Apes Deserve Basic Human Rights—

The Hominidae, of which humans are one of the four species in the taxonomic family along with chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas, is dominated by humans who are as much as 98% genetically related to the other species in the family. However, the other species just named are by their nature deserving of the right to life and liberty free of mankind’s dominance that results in what amounts to torture: confinement and needless testing.

How dare I suggest that these lesser creatures are deserving of humane treatment? Before I am through, I hope to show you that not only have we underestimated our close relatives, the chimps, bonobos and the other great apes, we have ignorantly underestimated other warm-blooded animals that we often refer to as “dumb animals,” whales, dolphins, our “pets” and even birds. They are considerably smarter than we give them credit for, occasionally smarter than the average two-to-three year old human, notwithstanding views about children and grandchildren.

Aside from the belated and cautious actions of the federal National Institutes of Health regarding the retirement of laboratory chimps, there are now in the court system in New York three lawsuits aimed at getting greater rights for chimps. Though the first lawsuits resulted in a loss, appeals will push the effort. The cases, relying on solid scientific research, were brought by Steven M. Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project. I refer you to a New York Times article describing the scientific, philosophical and moral grounds for granting greater rights to chimpanzees. No doubt the weight of evidence will eventually win the day over our present biased and constricted views of non-human animals.

The Robin Williams film, Bicentennial Man based on the novella by Isaac Asimov, has as its protagonist a robot instead of an animal. The thrust of the film shows that scientific advances coupled with increased human awareness can open the way for acceptance of greater rights for at least the higher animals.

 Animals that Are Self-Aware—

What are the species that, according to the latest scientific research, recognize themselves in a mirror, that is, are self-aware? Elephants, cetaceans such as some whales and dolphins and the hominidae (chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans) meet the test.

Elephants are extremely intelligent with extraordinary memories, have a wide range of emotions and the ability to communicate over long distances. They grieve when one of their own dies. As noted, they also recognize themselves in a mirror, Kant’s criterion for personhood.

Like their warm-blooded fellow creatures on land, whales are air-breathers who have individual names and can communicate with others of their species over long distances. They hunt and travel in groups. In Washington, I have watched a pod of Killer Whales cooperate in rounding up fish before feeding. It’s a crying shame for Sea World to take such a wide-ranging creature and confine it in a small tank for profitable human amusement.

The bottlenose dolphin (think Flipper) is, like its whale cousin, highly intelligent, self-aware, has a unique name and can communicate over great distances. If you want to see scenes that will make your blood boil, watch (free on the Internet) The Cove to see Japanese fishermen wantonly slaughter and capture dolphins to be sold to profit-making corporations like Sea World. Thanks to pollution of the ocean—the cradle of our own existence—thousands of bottlenose dolphins are dying. These are self-aware creatures. We humans have brought this on.

Next but not least are the hominidae, particularly the chimps and bonobos. These relatives of ours plan for the future. A perfect example can be seen in the chimp Santino in a Swedish zoo. He collects and hides rocks that he later uses to throw at his human observers. Other chimps save chips that they can trade for treats. They fashion tools they can use to get food. They teach their young how to make and use tools and methods for getting food. They reason and demonstrate abstract thought, communicate greetings and alarm and grieve at the loss of one of their own. In short, researchers show that they have many of the same behaviors humans have. How can we not allow them to be free of confinement and torture?

Other thinking Animals—

Raccoons are said to be the fifth smartest creature in the animal kingdom. I can attest to their intelligence from personal experience. Some friends had a pet raccoon that lived in an outdoor enclosure that allowed him easy access to the house. On one occasion, the typically curious raccoon entered the family kitchen where some electrical work was being done. Our friend heard a ZAP followed by a yelp and, knowing what had happened, laughed. Mistake. The angry and humiliated raccoon entered the room, bit our friend and retired to his outdoor enclosure for the rest of the day.

On another occasion, while I was sitting on the floor sipping wine (which, by the way, he tested) during a party, the raccoon watched me take a $5 bill from my breast pocket and put it in my tight jeans pocket to keep the raccoon from taking it. The raccoon climbed into my lap and diligently proceeded to try removing the bill from my pocket. Finally, unsuccessful, he moved on to bother other partiers.

 Birds are Not “Bird-brained”—

Researchers say that crows are among the smartest creatures on Earth. From personal experience, magpies, a close relative, match them in intelligence. One winter day, I watched in amazement as a magpie thwarted my effort to prevent magpies and other big birds from stealing the suet balls covered with seeds that bird-lovers put out for the little birds. I would hang the suet balls from a tree branch with twine so the big birds couldn’t reach the tasty prize in the net bag that allowed the small birds to hang on while they feasted. The magpie sat on the branch above the suet ball and thought for a moment. Then he grasped the twine and reeled the ball in until he was able to reach it whereupon he ripped the net open and stole the ball. If that wasn’t reasoning, I don’t know what is.

Magpies make large and intricate nests using mud, sticks and other flotsam that will make for a comfortable home. One day, I watched a magpie struggle with a long stick that was just too big and unwieldy to carry up to the nest being built. Along came the magpie’s mate and took the other end of the long stick and together they flew it up to the under-construction nest. Cooperation. Intelligence.

 Man’s Best Friend, the Dog—

Aside from my friend Dave’s talented virtual dog, Faux, I often hear dog owners say, “Why, s/he’s almost human.” If I had a $100 for every time I’ve heard that said, I’d be a rich man today. Researchers rank dogs for their intelligence, from the brilliant Border Collie to the less-than-bright King Charles Spaniel.

As you know from reading my piece “In the Name of Dog,” the dog can be a working dog, a trained companion for the disabled or simply a pet, but owners will testify that their dog has the uncanny ability to sense their moods. The dog is considered by experts to be one of the most intelligent animals on the planet.

Humans Aren’t the Only Intelligent Animal—

As you can see, other members of the animal kingdom are smart in their own way. Whether it be the very smart pig, the octopus or even the creepy spider, the animal kingdom has its own intelligence. While they can’t match humans (well, maybe they can match some members of Congress), there is no question that the great apes deserve to receive the basic right of freedom from confinement and torture. We all need to work toward that end.

 A final thought—

A number of warm-blooded animals not mentioned or mentioned only in passing have another thing in common with humans: they experience the fear of death. Cattle, pigs and chickens show fear when they realize they are about to be killed. They have no idea they will wind up on our menus, but they show clear signs of fearing their demise.

Two of my children have been vegetarians since learning at an early age that once-live animals were a part of their diet. They want no part in the killing of animals. They are perfectly healthy adults and derive all the nutrients they need from a vegetarian diet. Given the additional fact that growing vegetable matter is considerably easier and less environmentally destructive than raising animals for human consumption, should we not all consider the consequences of our eating habits?

Vegetarianism anybody?


    • Don Bay on January 4, 2014 at 07:29

    I, too, share your antipathy to hunting, whether to eat or to thin the herd (read that “wolves”). Fish and game departments, not to mention politicians, are eager to satisfy their hunting organizations, often if not always in opposition to the scientific experts who oppose the slaughter.

    My guilty pleasure is eating chicken and fish…that is, when I could eat. Now I just dream about it.

  1. I’ve never had room in my life for animals, save tropical fish. But even the lowly fish, as I have observed in the very large aquariums that I have kept over the years, is surprisingly ingenious and down right thoughtfully industrious at times. Are they self-aware? …I don’t know.

    As you point out Don, they, and other animals will flee perceived danger or show real fear when they cannot. This suggests at least some level of ‘self’. Anyone who has attempted to catch a Goldfish with a net will testify to their’ ability to flee.

    You mentioned birds. My mother had a simple parakeet that could speak sentences….SENTENCES! Was he simply mimicking? Well maybe… But, he had to figure out how to form those alien sounds in his tiny little brain…no? Science might be able to dismiss this feat, but I maintain that it requires some sort of analysis and processing. He fled out an open door one day, never to return. He fled a warm house, plenty of food, adoring keepers, and freedom to fly about the house. This act of rebellion suggests that he may not have been THAT smart, but he may have had a plan…aaa-ha!

    I never have owned a dog, save our dog Faux (more on him later). My sons, who went without dogs as they grew up, are now dog owners. And dote over them as other dog owners do. Both of them owe you at least $100, Don.
    My lack of animal companionship over the years has not been based on indifference to animals or lack of appreciation for the personalities that they often display. Pets from the minimal gerbil to horses all show, what certainly can be interpreted as, awareness. And their owners will testify to unmistakable displays of intelligence, intuition, and real SELF-awareness the same as dog owners might.

    Here’s the one I have trouble with: I never understood hunting, especial varmint hunting, where the prey is not taken for food. And in this day and age I don’t understand hunting, even IF the game IS eaten. I side with the animal’s RIGHT to exist and I see their demise as senseless.
    I haven’t eaten beef in over 30 years, more for health concerns than out of consideration of the animal. I do eat fish and chicken. And, I will admit that I am conflicted over the raising of animals for food. My guess is that animal ranchers, who supply the nations meat, do NOT name their animal.

    This brings me to Faux. Faux the dog is a figment of my and Marilyn’s imaginations. Dogs in Colorado, it seems, are a must-have. So, out of our need to ‘fit-in’, I photo-shopped a dog into a picture of us. And, although Faux also has human eyes and lips also thanks to Photoshop, many folks agree that he is a handsome dog.
    ”He seems almost human”, some say. “Why Yes…..yes he does”, we reply.


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