Novak (novak) wrote,

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Theological Notebook: AP Story on Activists Trying to Have A Chimp Declared a "Person"

I'm loosely lumping this into the journal under my "Theological Notebook" heading (my other headings are "Personal," "Random," and "Musical") rather than the "Random" one just because of the political or philosophical implications of the move. While a lot of people would find this silly in the extreme, there are, I suspect, a growing number of people who would take this seriously at some level. Now, at some level, I think we see the underlying philosophy here expressed being dealt to us rather regularly from a variety of sources, whether in Discovery Channel or Animal Planet Channel documentaries or whether from the passionate lobbying of some sectors of philosophical vegitarianism. Animals are routinely personified and equated with humans in such quarters. I suspect that the mere fact that most of our population is removed now by our sheer bounty from the labour of food-production, whereas our ancestors a mere century or two ago would never sentimentalize most animals, the lot of which they would regard as food resources to be used against an all-to-real threat of hunger that most of us in the West no longer sense.

Curiously, the idea of a "person" is one that has migrated from Christian Trinitarian theology, where the word "person" was used to designate that which is distinct about the Three "priniciples" (for lack of a better word) perceived in the One God. Augustine noted the original more-or-less contentlessness of the word "person" in simply explaining that we needed a handy word by which to indicate that we were talking about the Three Persons in their distinctiveness. The word migrated to our psychology and philosophy of today by coming to be used of our own unique distinctivenesses, although in our case it wouldn't be contrasted with the divine ontological unity found in the One God, but rather is perhaps used in distinction to our collective traits as a species.

Still, there's something to be said for the capacities of higher animals to achieve certain deeper personality traits, although I note that that seems to be a "rubbing-off" of traits from those human animals already possessing personhood: thus the animal that would be a coyote in the wild is a faithful dog through its association with a good master: but I'm not fooling myself for an instant into thinking that such dogs are going to be found in friendly packs roaming the wild, and looking to help out any human in distress.

It would be interesting to see how this case might bring the notion of "personhood" back to the courts from a different angle than the one we usually see. The biggest legal battles regarding being a "person" have of course been in the area of abortion. The arguments that the fetus is not "human" or not "alive" are clearly and scientifically false. Thus the chief argument in support of abortion rights has been the denial that the fetus is a "person." Myself, I think this was a horrible route for the debate to proceed down, merely on an historical level, as the denial of "person" status has been the form of argument used in support of political programs against every oppressed and decimated peoples: as an argument for any politics, I think it is utterly unredeemable. I'm curious to see if the arguments used in support of the personhood of a nonhuman with such species' intrinsic limitations would end up having an impact on the legal or juridical strength of the denial of person-status to unborn children simply because of their incomplete developmental state.

Activists Want Chimp Declared a 'Person'
May 4, 9:57 PM (ET)


VIENNA, Austria (AP) - In some ways, Hiasl is like any other Viennese: He indulges a weakness for pastry, likes to paint and enjoys chilling out watching TV. But he doesn't care for coffee, and he isn't actually a person - at least not yet.

In a case that could set a global legal precedent for granting basic rights to apes, animal rights advocates are seeking to get the 26-year-old male chimpanzee legally declared a "person."

Hiasl's supporters argue he needs that status to become a legal entity that can receive donations and get a guardian to look out for his interests.

"Our main argument is that Hiasl is a person and has basic legal rights," said Eberhart Theuer, a lawyer leading the challenge on behalf of the Association Against Animal Factories, a Vienna animal rights group.

"We mean the right to life, the right to not be tortured, the right to freedom under certain conditions," Theuer said.

"We're not talking about the right to vote here."

The campaign began after the animal sanctuary where Hiasl (pronounced HEE-zul) and another chimp, Rosi, have lived for 25 years went bankrupt.

Activists want to ensure the apes don't wind up homeless if the shelter closes. Both have already suffered: They were captured as babies in Sierra Leone in 1982 and smuggled in a crate to Austria for use in pharmaceutical experiments. Customs officers intercepted the shipment and turned the chimps over to the shelter.

Their food and veterinary bills run about $6,800 a month. Donors have offered to help, but there's a catch: Under Austrian law, only a person can receive personal donations.

Organizers could set up a foundation to collect cash for Hiasl, whose life expectancy in captivity is about 60 years. But without basic rights, they contend, he could be sold to someone outside Austria, where the chimp is protected by strict animal cruelty laws.

"If we can get Hiasl declared a person, he would have the right to own property. Then, if people wanted to donate something to him, he'd have the right to receive it," said Theuer, who has vowed to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

Austria isn't the only country where primate rights are being debated. Spain's parliament is considering a bill that would endorse the Great Ape Project, a Seattle-based international initiative to extend "fundamental moral and legal protections" to apes.

If Hiasl gets a guardian, "it will be the first time the species barrier will have been crossed for legal 'personhood,'" said Jan Creamer, chief executive of Animal Defenders International, which is working to end the use of primates in research.

Paula Stibbe, a Briton who teaches English in Vienna, petitioned a district court to be Hiasl's legal trustee. On April 24, Judge Barbara Bart rejected her request, ruling Hiasl didn't meet two key tests: He is neither mentally impaired nor in an emergency.

Although Bart expressed concern that awarding Hiasl a guardian could create the impression that animals enjoy the same legal status as humans, she didn't rule that he could never be considered a person.

Martin Balluch, who heads the Association Against Animal Factories, has asked a federal court for a ruling on the guardianship issue.

"Chimps share 99.4 percent of their DNA with humans," he said. "OK, they're not homo sapiens. But they're obviously also not things - the only other option the law provides."

Not all Austrian animal rights activists back the legal challenge. Michael Antolini, president of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said he thinks it's absurd.

"I'm not about to make myself look like a fool" by getting involved, said Antolini, who worries that chimpanzees could gain broader rights, such as copyright protections on their photographs.

But Stibbe, who brings Hiasl sweets and yogurt and watches him draw and clown around by dressing up in knee-high rubber boots, insists he deserves more legal rights "than bricks or apples or potatoes."

"He can be very playful but also thoughtful," she said. "Being with him is like playing with someone who can't talk."

A date for the appeal hasn't been set, but Hiasl's legal team has lined up expert witnesses, including Jane Goodall, the world's foremost observer of chimpanzee behavior.

"When you see Hiasl, he really comes across as a person," Theuer said.

"He has a real personality. It strikes you immediately: This is an individual. You just have to look him in the eye to see that."


Great Ape Project,

Animal Defenders International,
Tags: constitutional, cultural, europe, legal, philosophical, theological notebook

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