"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Aug 6, 2007

Trapped Between People and Property

The Case for Great Ape Personhood

In 1886 the Supreme Court of the United States granted personhood status to the first non-human. In this case it was a corporation and Southern Pacific Railroad (part of robber baron Leland Stanford’s empire) snuck in through a legal loophole to gain full personhood rights under the 14th Amendment.

Prior to 1886, dating back to the 1600s, corporations were viewed as “artificial persons,” a legal turn of phrase that offered certain rights to the companies but without the full rights of citizens. In several recent campaigns, primate rights activists have been advocating for something similar to benefit great apes caught up in the legal purgatory that bridges the gulf between people and property.

In the Aug. 13 edition of Newsweek (Monkey See, Monkey Sue) one such case involves a custody battle over Primarily Primates, Inc. based in Texas and Oregon’s Chimps, Inc. PPI was found guilty of animal cruelty after several of the chimps sent there died at the facility as well as in transit (they were sent after funding ran out at Ohio State University’s Chimpanzee Cognition Center). Now that PPI claims to have cleaned up their act they’re attempting to retrieve their “property” from the Oregon sanctuary they were relocated to.

“To return them to the scene of the crime, if you will, is no different than returning a young child to an abuse situation and saying, ‘Everything's better now’,” says Bruce Wagman, an animal-law specialist representing Chimps, Inc.

However, the legal weight is on the side of PPI despite the evidence of abuse and misuse of funds.

Animal welfare is a relatively new legal argument, one that doesn't yet trump claims of ownership, says Michigan State law professor and animal-rights expert David Favre.

This was demonstrated earlier this year when primate rights advocates failed to get the Austrian courts to allow them to legally adopt Hiasl and Rosi, two chimpanzees who were rescued while being illegally shipped for use in pharmaceutical research. Since their food and veterinary bills totaled nearly $7,000 a month the Association Against Animal Factories hoped to legally adopt the two chimpanzees so they could receive personal donations which, under Austrian law, can only be given to “persons.” Jane Goodall and Peter Singer were two of the high-profile scientists petitioning on the apes’ behalf, in this case to no avail. If the apes had been allowed the right of adoption it would have set a legal precedent that owning apes was equivalent to owning children or dependent adults.

However, if Hiasl or the chimpanzees in question in the Newsweek article, lived in Mallorca or any other of Spain's Balearic Islands the story would be quite different. In February this year, the regional parliament made history by becoming the first to recognize the individual rights of chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans. Any apes living in the Balearic Islands are no longer property to be owned but instead are protected by guardians, who must ensure that their rights to freedom from torture, mistreatment and unnecessary death are being respected. The Spanish parliament will decide this summer whether to follow suit for the rest of Spain.

The major front in the movement for ape rights is currently in Europe. The United States is the only Western country that continues to use great apes in pharmaceutical experimentation. The proposed Spanish law would make it illegal for apes to be owned and, if passed, should eventually become standard throughout Europe. This seems entirely reasonable as apes have been shown to have the intellect and emotional depth of four-year old children and deserve protections under law from being commodities on the open market.

If the law will recognize corporations as "artificial persons" for hundreds of years and then decide to enhance their status, why shouldn’t we grant apes some limited protections as nonhuman persons?

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Anonymous said...

as a correction: The OSU chimps were sent to Chimp Haven in Louisiana, other, different animals from PPI were sent to Oregon.

-Ben Bayliss
Columbus, Ohio

Eric Michael Johnson said...

Thanks for the correction Ben. The information I had came from the Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University.

Further digging led me to this site that details the transfer to Chimp Haven.

Primarily Primates is currently planning to have the remaining nine OSU chimpanzees reclaimed from Chimp Haven under the same legal rubric described in the Newsweek article.

Rick Bogle said...

Does it say someplace in the suit that PPI was "found guilty" of cruelty? I didn't see it and I'm not aware this is the case.

Also, on the Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University website, it summarizes the suit saying that OSU sold the chimpanzees to PPI, but OSU transfered them to PPI along with $236,483. Like I buy a car and the dealer gives me money...

FoA/PPI is clearly on the wrong side of this -- the animals that were taken out of PPI have been fortunate to end up in much better and safer havens. Going to court to get them back into the hands of Swett is like sending a child back to an abusive and negligent step father.

Eric Michael Johnson said...

That link was to provide the case number so people could look up more detailed specifics.

As stated in the Complaint for Declaratory Judgment PPI was found to have "over 700 animals who were living in filth, deprived of most contact and interaction, undernourished and, in many cases, in very bad health and various states of suffering. Their afflictions were the result of absent or appalling care, as well as woefully inadequate and inappropriate housing which caused their problems."

The technical decision of the court was a breach of contract for PPI not living up to their obligations and because they didn't have the appropriate permits for ownership of "dangerous wild animals".

The issue still remains whether great apes are subject to the whims of ownership or have rights (albeit limited) as sentient beings.

Kermit's Community Blog said...

To learn more about the former OSU chimpanzees and the horrific suffering endured while housed at Primarily Primates please visit

Debbie Lee Wesselmann said...

I really wish that the government would allow a third category for great apes -- not human (which invites ridicule) but not property, either. Chimpanzees have such incredible intelligence and emotional complexity that they deserve court advocates.