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

Sep 28, 2007

Courts Dismiss Great Ape Personhood

Austrian court case hits a snag, but the campaign is ongoing.

Matthew Hiasl Pan, a 28-year-old chimpanzee orphan is in legal limbo.

In my earlier post Trapped Between People and Property I highlighted the recent court cases raising the issue of primate personhood and legal standing. It seems there has been a temporary setback in the case of Matthew Hiasl Pan, a chimpanzee that has been making headlines in Austria.

The Associated Press is reporting that Pan’s case was dismissed from the provincial court on a technical issue because the judge ruled that his human advocates “had no legal standing to argue on the chimp's behalf.”

According to the AP:

The association, which worries the shelter caring for the chimp might close, has been pressing to get Pan declared a "person" so a guardian can be appointed to look out for his interests and provide him with a home.

Their upkeep costs about €4,800 (US$6,800) a month. Donors have offered to help, but there's a catch: Under Austrian law, only a person can receive personal gifts.

Organizers could set up a foundation to collect cash for Pan, whose life expectancy in captivity is about 60 years. But they contend that only personhood will give him the basic rights he needs to ensure he isn't sold to someone outside Austria, where he's now protected by strict animal cruelty laws.

The animal rights group, the Vienna-based Association Against Animal Factories who brought the case, is now appealing to the Austrian Supreme Court. According to group President Martin Balluch:

"The question is: Are chimps things without interests, or persons with interests? A large section of the public does see chimps as beings with interests. . . We are looking forward to hear what the high court has to say on this fundamental question."

As one who strongly agrees with the premise that apes should have legal rights (as have such notable figures as Jane Goodall, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Douglas Adams and Peter Singer – see The Great Ape Project) I’d say it’s long past the time that we regard other sentient beings as mere things and begin breaking down these barriers between human and non-human. Biologists and anthropologists have been breaking down this barrier for fifty years, when will this be reflected in our jurisprudence?

Courts Dismiss Great Ape PersonhoodSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend


Joel said...

Hey Eric -

I agree- apes deserve legal recognition.

Corporations have standing- ships have standing- why not apes?

But I wanted to be a nerd and point out that standing isn't a technicality (in my book) but a real constitutional issue.

It's an issue for those of us who care about the rights of animals to overcome.

Keep up the good work eric!

Eric Michael Johnson said...


I completely agree with you. It is unlikely that great apes could attain "personhood" by the same route as corporations did. There had been a long history prior to corporate personhood being enacted that viewed corporations as legal "artificial persons". It was this construction that the lawyers for the railroad barons built upon in the Supreme Court.

A very different history of legal precedent would have to be used to enact great ape personhood. The forefront of this struggle is in Europe at the moment, but history has shown that legal restrictions overseas have a dramatic influence on domestic law. Just consider the outrage that GMO companies in the United States expressed when Europeans wanted restrictions on the sale of genetically modified food. They knew that their market would be cut in half if they were unable to export their Frankenfoods. The same thing could happen if European countries rejected medicines that were developed using great apes as research subjects.

Thanks for the comment!