Are the great apes “persons”? The idea makes its way

Posted in 30/10/2018


Provide the great apes with a specific legal status: jurists and politicians want to move the borders of French law to better protect these primates in danger of extinction by promoting the emerging concept of “non-human person”.

The situation of the great apes in the wild is alarming: two species of gorillas and two of orangutans are on the verge of extinction, according to the latest report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). On the other hand, the chimpanzee and the bonobo are considered in danger of extinction.

A third species of orangutans with about 800 individuals, recently discovered, is threatened by a hydroelectric dam project, scientists and NGOs are alarmed.

In April, actress Nathalie Baye, primatologist Sabrina Krief, former Medef (Business Movement of France) Laurence Parisot, and Paris alderman Yann Wehrling launched a call to save these animals. Among the possibilities mentioned, it is proposed to establish “a new legislation with respect to animals (…) to great apes in particular.”

French civil law distinguishes two categories: property and persons. For a long time considered as movable property, domestic or captive animals have been recognized since 2015 in the Civil Code as “living beings endowed with sensitivity”. However, “according to the laws that protect them, animals are subject to the property regime.”

Animal advocates are not satisfied with this change. “We started from far away in our country,” lamented the deputy of LREM (officialism), Loïc Dombreval, during a symposium on great apes in Paris.

For primatologist Sabrina Krief, changing the law “would show that we have a role to play in France” to protect primates. “A great ape keeps memories of what happened, is empathic, has a great need for social life,” says the scientist, who studies the wild chimpanzees in Uganda, remembering their genetic proximity to humans.

For her, exhibiting these animals in television studios or circuses goes against their needs, and also encourages their poaching.

– No to arbitrary confinement –

What is the best way to defend a primate in captivity? “Providing them with the category of people/person,” says Law professor Jean-Pierre Marguénaud.

It is not about putting them on an equal footing with human beings and giving them the same rights, he explains to the AFP, but “to be inspired by the moral (or legal) person”. This statute applies to associations, foundations …

It would be “to provide a toolbox that would specify the legal personality that could be granted to animals”, adaptable according to the species, adds Marguénaud.

This concept has its detractors: for some, it is out of all consideration to approximate the rights of animals to those of humans. For others, it would be problematic to provide only great apes, among all animals, with a specific status.

The idea is not limited to France. The Australian philosopher Peter Singer created in 1993, together with the Italian philosopher Paola Cavalieri, the “Great Apes Project”, which demands for them the right to life, liberty and the prohibition of torturing them.

In the United States, the lawyer Steven Wise has fought for several years for chimpanzees to be recognized as people, so far without results.

In Argentina, the court of the province of Mendoza granted a female chimpanzee the right not to be caged without trial under the recourse of ‘habeas corpus’, a very common legal procedure, especially in the Anglo-Saxon law. Cecilia left her cage at the Mendoza Zoo in 2017 to move to live in the Sanctuary for great primates in Sorocaba, Brazil.

Before her, the orangutan Sandra had been recognized as a “non-human person”, and therefore could benefit from the recourse of ‘habeas corpus’ according to Argentine justice, but was not transferred from her zoo.

For the philosopher Florence Burgat, specialist in the animal condition, these would not be the only ones to benefit from a legislative change. “We can not educate humans to respect each other, as long as there is a ‘carte blanche’ (in the deal) with animals,” he says.