On December 4th, 2014, a New York court unanimously ruled that a chimpanzee is not entitled to legal personhood. This was a disappointing but not surprising loss for the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhrP). They were representing on behalf of Tommy the chimpanzee. Tommy is held in capitivity by his owner Patrick Lavery in New York, and The NhRP wants to fight the notion that it’s legal to hold a chimpanzee as a pet and establish basic rights for our closest genetic relative.
The court, however, ruled that it would be “inappropriate” to grant the rights of a human to an animal. Patrick Lavery said, “I just couldn’t picture any court granting habeas corpus for an animal.If it works for one animal, it works for all animals. It would open a can of worms.”
This ruling and derogatory language illustrates two assumptions: 1) humans are not animals, and 2) other animals are inferior to humans. While it may be understandable that we as humans hold these views, they merit questioning.
There is little doubt that we are likely to be the most complex and intelligent species on this planet. We have things like art, music, religion, tools, language, the scientific method, technological advancement, complex government, etc. And our appearance is different from most other animals: we don’t have fur and walk upright. We even make sure to remove and style some of our body hair.
But there are several human behaviors that we share with other species. Elephants mourn their dead in a ritualistic manner, dance to music, and have the dexterity in the fingers of their trunks to pick up a needle off a flat surface. Some penguins practice prostitution. Chimps embrace each other, kiss on the lips, and use tools for different purposes. Gorillas and orangutans can communicate using sign language. Some ants have extremely complex social systems.
Furthermore, we share a significant portion of our DNA with other species. Humans and chimps share 98% of their DNA. We also share 92% of our DNA with mice. This is part of the reason they are used to conduct research. While their biological makeup isn’t identical to humans, there is enough in common for us to gather some reliable data when it comes to studying diseases that plague humans.
Ironically, when there are mice in our homes, the human instinct is to get rid of them because they can carry contagious germs. Yet the research that we do depends do our inherent commonality with them; this has helped us save human lives with penicillin, insulin, and research for treating breast cancer, meningitis, etc.
Sadly, while our common genome with mice benefits us, it hurts them. We see them as carriers of the plague, but these unfortunate test subjects often endure cruel and painful experiments to help us treat our own diseases. There is a benefit for humans, but their lives are plagued by us treating them as beneath us when in fact they are our relatives.
The Nonhuman Rights Project seeks to address some of this issue by first establishing basic legal rights for highly intelligent animals like chimpanzees. Chimps are also social and self-aware. In spite of this, they can be treated like property under the current law. Solitary confinement is considered one of the most torturous forms of punishment for a human being. But for a chimpanzee, isolated captivity is perfectly legal and acceptable.
When Patrick Lavery says it’s opening a can of worms to give legal rights to animals, he forgets that our legal system has already been applied to one animal: Homo Sapiens. The notion that humans are the only species deserving of legal rights stems from an outlook known as human exceptionalism. This idea asserts that humans are the most important species, and other animals are resources for profit, consumption, and/ or ownership.
Another part of this mentality is pretending we aren’t animals. Lavery’s words demonstrate this. Unlike humans, animals are only concerned with food, sex, reproduction, and territory. We humans have an exceptionally obsessive relationship with food. We have myriad restaurants, cooking shows, eating disorders, recipe books, junk food lobbies, food-centered holidays, etc. Food is a ritual around which socialize and conduct business.
Furthermore, how much of our lives as humans revolve around sex? Whether it be thinking about it, trying not to think about it, getting it, filming it, watching it, having it, doing it differently, denying it, condemning it, talking about it, having it again, advertising with it, etc, it plays a ubiquitous role in our lives, and that is an integral part of being an animal.
Consequently, our rate of reproduction is also unparalleled among other primates. There are currently 7.2 billion humans, and projections estimate that there will be 9.6 billion of us by 2050 and 10.9 billion by 2100. This number of humans is unprecedented in our history, and it’s connected to our possessive nature when it comes to fighting over and establishing territory. Much like our chimp relatives, humans are inherently violent. We are in a state of perpetual war, and any superficial study of history shows that fighting over land and resources is as natural as breathing for Homo Sapiens.
Not only do we excel at battling over land and resources among ourselves, but our expansion has brought on the habitat loss and extinction of many other species. Half of the world’s wildlife has disappeared in the last 40 years. Some of these animals have been alive for millions of years, and their demise is being brought on by our growth, butchery, and pollution in a mere handful of decades. All these human characteristic are evidence of our dominance as animals; this dominance does not exclude us from being animals.
It’s unclear as to what we think we are when we’re humping our significant or not-so significant others. Or when we’re waging yet another war over territory and resources. Other species don’t have God, books, computers, etc. These distinctions are ways by which we can convince ourselves that we’re not part of the animal kingdom. However, the fact that our experience is more complex doesn’t make us any less animal. And deceiving ourselves into believing otherwise reflects the extreme arrogance that is human exceptionalism.
With all of our intelligence and technology, we still lack the tools to fully perceive and extract this pervasive paradigm from our society. This self-deceptive disconnect allows us to feel entitled to our apex position on this planet. But what if another species eventually comes along with only 2% more complex DNA than ours and holds us as captive pets like Tommy?