Legal standing for our no-human kin

Posted in 05/08/2019

Medina, Ngamba Island, 2017, photograph by Alyson Baker  

By Alyson Baker*

I stood next to Boris, a Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary caregiver, I was volunteering at the Sanctuary. I mentioned to Boris that Medina, the chimpanzee who was browsing on the other side of the fence, had something stuck on her back.  

“Medina, what’s on your back?” asked Boris. 

Medina stood up and spun around so we could see her back while craning over her own shoulder so she could also have a look.  

My name is Alyson Baker, and this was one of many experiences I had while I was on Ngamba, witnessing chimpanzees demonstrating sophisticated cognitive awareness of, and engagement with, their surroundings.  Prior to my stay there, I had been aware of ongoing efforts to gain legal rights for specific animals such as chimpanzees, to help with their protection.  My experiences at Ngamba led to an increased interest in these efforts.  

For those like me, with an interest in this topic but no legal training, an excellent book that lays out the arguments regarding giving chimpanzees legal personhood is Chimpanzee rights by Kristen Andrews et al. (Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019).

This book is based on the amicus brief submitted to the New York Court of Appeals to support arguments towards granting two captive chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, the status of legal persons.   The book takes the reader through the various philosophical bases of concepts such a personhood, and legal standing. It shows the strengths and weaknesses of the various arguments and explains the crucial difference between biological personhood and legal personhood – explaining that at various times in history categories of human beings have not been given legal standing as persons – e.g. children, women and people of colour. This is not to equate any of these groups to non-human animals but to point out the non-biological basis of legal personhood.  

It is a great book for those interested in the work to get legal standing for our non-human kin.  

Also of interest is the news posted on the NonHumanRights blog on June 25 this year, discussing the error that had been made in a court opinion regarding what was required for legal personhood. This error was based on a typo in the legal definition used in the opinion, taken from the 7th edition of Black’s Law Dictionary. The blog reported that this definition has now been corrected and reads “So far as legal theory is concerned, a person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights or duties.” 

*Alyson Baker is a Librarian from Nelson, New Zealand.  She has always been interested in wildlife and is appalled not only by the predicted rapid path to extinction of so many animals, but also by the way many of them are treated, especially chimpanzees, our closest relatives.  Alyson volunteered at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Uganda in 2017.  She returned to Ngamba in 2018 and also went chimp tracking in Kibale National Park, and is planning to go back to the sanctuary and visit Budongo Forest Reserve next year.

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