06/08/2007 02:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Animal Rights for Humans

An Austrian court will soon decide whether a chimpanzee can be legally declared a person. The chimp in question, Hiasl (pronounced "HEE-zul"), made news when the sanctuary where he resides was facing bankruptcy. A concerned donor earmarked a modest sum to Hiasl. Schoolteacher Paula Stibbe petitioned the court to be named the chimp's legal guardian and thus spend the money on his behalf. The request was denied, and now Stibbe's attorneys are trying a new tack.

Under Austrian law, only humans can receive money. So the new suit seeks to grant the chimp personhood. As a legal person, the chimpanzee could receive donations, which would provide for his rather expensive care. The case is generating heated debate, as granting Stibbe's request would be tantamount to giving human rights to a nonhuman primate.

Jane Goodall is expected to testify that chimpanzees, who share more than 99 percent of our DNA, should be entitled to the same rights as humans. This isn't a new argument. The Great Ape Project has been proposing for years that all great apes -- chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and humans -- should be included in a community of equals guaranteed the same basic rights (life, liberty, and freedom from torture). Steven M. Wise, in Rattling the Cage, puts forth compelling arguments why chimpanzees and bonobos should be granted legal status equivalent to humans.

(Even those who propose we give apes human rights admit there would be limitations to their legal status. For example, an ape would not be allowed to vote in the next election -- with the possible exception of chimps registered in Miami-Dade County. Nor could they drive a car, though I'd argue that the average chimpanzee could drive better than some of the people I encounter on L.A. freeways.)

As a lifelong animal lover with a predilection for primates, I applaud any efforts to improve the lives of apes, both in captivity and in their natural habitats. But efforts to grant human rights to apes may be counterproductive. In fact, I think we can do better.

Why place apes under the same legal umbrella as humans, after all, when human rights are being abridged at an unprecedented rate? Last fall, our government approved techniques that are defined as torture under the Geneva Convention and made it legal to detain U.S. citizens as suspected enemy combatants without trial -- and without even having to disclose the charges or evidence to the accused. Also, casualties of the war on terror: our right to privacy and the ability speak freely without fear of winding up on a watch list. These homegrown examples are just the tip of the human-rights-abuse iceberg worldwide.

So rather than extending human rights to apes, let's put our efforts into securing the strongest possible ape rights. Then, in five to 10 years (or sooner depending on who wins the White House in '08), when human rights have eroded to near negligible, we'll turn the tables on the human-animal rights debate and seek protection under their umbrella.

"You honor, Mr. Johnson is genetically more than 99 percent identical to a chimpanzee. Shouldn't he be entitled to the same rights and protections under the law?"

Instead of splitting hairs over where to draw the divide, let's give Hiasl and his fellow apes the rights they deserve -- all the rights befitting the intelligent, self-aware, toolmaking higher primates that they are. Let's do it for their own benefit--and perhaps, one day, our own.