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The inalienable rights of Apes? They share up to 98.7 percent of our DNA; in Spain, they may soon share our rights.


The environment committee of the Spanish Parliament voted in June to grant limited rights to our closest biological relatives, the great apes--chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans.

The proposed law would bind Spain to the principles of the Great Ape Project, an international organization of scientists, ethicists, psychologists, and animal-rights advocates based in Seattle. The Project, founded in 1993, points to apes' human qualities, including the ability to feel fear and happiness, create tools, use languages, remember the past, and plan for the future.

The Great Ape Project's directors, Peter Singer, an ethicist based at Princeton University, and Paola Cavalieri, an Italian philosopher, regard apes as part of a "community of equals" with humans.

If the bill passes, it will be illegal in Spain to kill apes except in self-defense. Torture, including medical experiments, and arbitrary imprisonment--as in being made to perform in circuses or films--will be forbidden. The 300 apes in Spanish zoos would not be freed, but better conditions would be mandated.

What's intriguing about the committee's action is that it raises the question not only of what kinship humans have with certain animals, but also of what rights all humans should have.


We like to think that there is a distinct line between humans and animals, and that certain human rights are inalienable.

But Singer has grappled with both those questions as part of the Great Ape Project: He left out lesser apes like gibbons because scientific evidence of human qualities is weaker, and he demanded only rights that he believed all humans were usually offered, such as freedom from torture--rather than, say, a right to education or medical care.

Depending on how it is counted, the DNA of the great apes is 95 percent to 98.7 percent the same as that of humans.

Nonetheless, the law treats all animals as lower orders. Human Rights Watch, a humanitarian group based in New York, has no position on apes in Spain and has never had an internal debate about who is human, says Joseph Saunders, deputy program director.

"There's no blurry middle," he says, "and human rights are so woefully protected that we're going to keep our focus there."

At the same time, even in democracies, the law accords diminished rights to many humans: women, children, prisoners, the insane, the senile. Teenagers may not vote, and courts can order surgery or force-feeding.


Spain does not envision endowing apes with all rights: to drive, to bear arms, and so on. Rather, their status would be akin to that of children.

Ingrid Newkirk, a founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, considers Spain's vote "a great start at breaking down the species barriers, under which humans are regarded as godlike and the rest of the animal kingdom, whether chimpanzees or clams, are treated like dirt."


Others are aghast. Scientists, for example, would like to keep using chimpanzees to study the AIDS virus, which is believed to have come from apes.

In fact, a wide range of animals are used to test drugs that fight human disease, and animal testing has become a contentious issue in the animal rights debate.

When human law does intervene in this primate-eat-primate world, it is on a case-by-case basis. Even animal-cruelty laws have a bias toward big mammals like us. For example, in a slaughterhouse, chickens are sent alive and squawking into the throat-slitting machine and the scalding bath.

But under the federal Humane Slaughter Act, a cow must be knocked senseless as painlessly as possible before the first cut can be made.

Which raises an interesting moral dilemma for the Spanish Parliament: What about bullfighting?



Ask students to jot down what they consider to be basic human rights. Then ask which of those rights should also apply to animals.

* Are all basic human rights protected by law? Why or why not?

* Should all animals have the same Legal protections, or do some merit more rights than others? What differentiates species in terms of rights, in your opinion?

The Great Ape Project wants some species to be granted "the right to life, protection of individual liberty, and prohibition of torture." What do you think? Are Americans protected in such a way? Are all people?


Write an essay exploring the roles that animals play in your life--as pets, as "products," as food sources, etc. Include your views about the notion of animals receiving basic legal protection.


Take a side: Animals should not be granted legal protections until all humans have those same rights.


Do you think that the use of animals in circuses or other performances should be outlawed? Explain.

Why are animals used in research for the development of products like cosmetics and drugs? Are you more likely to purchase products that say they are "cruelty-free"? Why or why not?

Should animals be used in medical testing if the result could be curing a disease?

The article states that "critics object that recognizing rights for apes would diminish human beings." Do you agree or disagree?

What role does economics play in animal rights? How would industries that deal with animals, such as meat producers, have to change how they operate if their animals had legal. protections? Which of those changes could be positive, and which might be negative?


Fifty years ago, several million chimpanzees were thought to Live in Africa. Today, there are fewer than 200,000.


The Great Ape Project supports granting basic legal protections to great apes.


(1) Which of the following is not a protection that would be granted to great apes under the proposed Spanish law?

a Apes could not be killed.

b Apes could not be used in medical experiments.

c Apes could not be used in performances.

d Apes Living in zoos would have better Living conditions.

(2) Why does the Great Ape Project leave out lesser apes from their rights proposals?

a The group felt that proposing to protect fewer animals would improve the chances that the proposed law would be approved.

b People don't treat lesser apes the same way as great apes.

c Another organization is striving to protect lesser apes.

d The scientific evidence of their human qualities is weaker.

(3) How similar is ape DNA to human DNA?

a 85 to 88 percent

b 92 to 94 percent

c 95 to 98 percent

d Over 99 percent

(4) Spain envisions giving apes rights similar to those granted to--.

a animals used in food production

b children

c endangered species

d humans

(5) Some scientists are concerned by this proposed law because they

a fear Losing research grants.

b do not feel that the connection between chimps and humans is so close.

c would Like to keep using chimps for medical research.

d think the law distracts from legislation protecting humans.


(1) The end of the article notes the irony of this proposal being debated in Spain. Describe the irony.

(2) Do you think that animals used in food production should also be protected from torture as this law proposes for great apes? Is there a difference between cattle and chickens and apes in terms of this point?

(3) How can animal rights be balanced with the potential for saving lives?


(1) (a) Apes could not be killed.

(2)) (d) The scientific evidence of their human qualities is weaker.

(3) (c) 95-98 percent.

(4) (b) children

(5) (c) would like to keep using chimps to study human diseases.

(1) Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and      What are great apes?
orangutans fall into this category of

(2) The idea of granting rights to great     What are humans?
apes is based on their similar qualities
to these primates.

(3) In great apes and humans, this is 95     What is DNA?
percent to 98.7 percent similar.

(4) "Arbitrary imprisonment" in the case     What is performances, such
of great apes refers to this.                as circuses and firms?

(5) The taw being debated in Spain that      What is the Great Ape
would grant rights to great apes is based    Project?
on the principles of this international

Donald G. McNeil Jr. is a science reporter for The New York Times.
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Title Annotation:ETHICS
Author:McNeil, Donald G., Jr.
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Oct 6, 2008
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