Should Chimpanzees Have Legal Rights?

ByABC News via logo

April 26, 2002 -- They entertain the masses in performances like Ice Capades, serve as medical research subjects, and share 98.7 percent of DNA in common with humans. So why shouldn't chimpanzees be allowed to have lawyers?

The Chimpanzee Collaboratory, a national coalition of lawyers, scientists and public policy experts who support legal protection for chimps, have drafted legislation to that end. Under their proposal, nonprofit groups would be able to petition courts in order to serve as guardians for any chimps who are "subjected to the willful use of force or violence upon its body."

Among those championing the chimps' cause is constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law School professor.

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He and others have argued that chimps are able to use tools, interact socially, and teach their offspring. Some have also learned sign language, are able to communicate at the same level as a child of 3 or 4.

Make Chimps into Legal 'Persons'

By law, animals are "property," or "things" that do not have rights on their own. But some legal reformers, including Tribe, would like to see the legal definition of "persons" expanded to include chimpanzees, whose scientific name is Pan troglodytes. Chimpanzees are our closest genetic relatives.

Of course, chimpanzees could not file lawsuits on their own, but animal-rights advocates are proposing that judges could appoint a human "guardian-at-law," to represent them in court, similar to the way legal guardians may represent children.

With legal rights, chimps could seek injunctions to block researchers, animal trainers on movie sets, and operators of roadside attractions who might harm the animals either physically or psychologically. They could also seek damages for medical expenses, and their guardians could seek punitive damages against anyone who denies them their rights.

One of the reasons that concern about chimp rights has grown is because of the growing number of chimps in captivity. The animals were bred aggressively in the 1980s for AIDS research, but ended up being too similar to humans for scientists to be able to test treatments and vaccines on them.

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