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Great ape personhood is a movement to create legal recognition of bonobos, common chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans (the non-human great apes) as bona fide persons.


First steps

On February 28, 2007 the parliament of the Balearic Islands, an autonomous province of Spain, passed the world's first legislation that would effectively grant legal rights to all great apes.[1] The act sent ripples out of the region and across Spain, producing public support for the rights of great apes. On June 25, 2008 a parliamentary committee set forth resolutions urging Spain to grant the primates the rights to life and liberty. If approved "it will ban harmful experiments on apes and make keeping them for circuses, television commercials or filming illegal under Spain's penal code." [2]

These precedents followed years of European legal efforts. In 1992, Switzerland amended its constitution to recognize animals as beings and not things.[3] However, in 1999 the Swiss constitution was completely rewritten. A decade later, Germany guaranteed rights to animals in a 2002 amendment to its constitution, becoming the first European Union member to do so.[3][4][5]




Well-known advocates are primatologist Jane Goodall, appointed a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations to fight the bushmeat trade and end ape extinction;[6] Richard Dawkins, former Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University;[7] Peter Singer, professor of philosophy at Princeton University;[8] and attorney and former Harvard professor Steven Wise.[9]

Goodall's longitudinal studies revealed the social and family life of chimps to be very similar to that of human beings in some respects. She herself calls them individuals, and says they relate to her as an individual member of the clan. Laboratory studies of ape language ability began to reveal other human traits, as did genetics, and eventually three of the great apes were reclassified as hominids.

This, plus rising ape extinction and the animal rights movement has put pressure on nations to recognize apes as having limited rights and being legal "persons." In response, the United Kingdom introduced a ban on research using great apes, although testing on other primates has not been limited.[10]

Writer and lecturer, Thomas Rose, makes the argument that granting legal rights afforded to humans to non-humans is nothing new. He points out that in the majority of the world, "corporations are recognized as legal persons and are granted many of the same rights humans enjoy, the right to sue, to vote and to freedom of speech."[1]


Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College, London, opposes the movement, arguing that, although great apes share as much as 98% of DNA with humans, all species share common DNA to some extent. He also argues that, "Rights and responsibilities go together and I've yet to see a chimp imprisoned for stealing a banana because they don't have a moral sense of what's right and wrong. To give them rights is to give them something without asking for anything in return."[11]

See also


  1. ^ a b Thomas Rose (2007-08-02). "Going ape over human rights". CBC News. Retrieved 2008-06-26.  
  2. ^ "Spanish parliament to extend rights to apes". Reuters. 2008-06-25. Retrieved 2008-07-11.  
  3. ^ a b "Germany guarantees animal rights in constitution". Associated Press. 2002-05-18. Retrieved 2008-06-26.  
  4. ^ "Germany guarantees animal rights". CNN. 2002-06-21. Retrieved 2008-06-26.  
  5. ^ Kate Connolly (2002-06-22). "German animals given legal rights". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-06-26.  
  6. ^ Goodall, Jane in Cavalieri, Paola & Singer, Peter. (eds.) The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. St Martin's Griffin, 1994.
  7. ^ Dawkins, Richard. "Gaps in the Mind" in Cavalieri, Paola & Singer, Peter. (eds.) The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. St Martin's Griffin, 1994.
  8. ^ Cavalieri, Paola & Singer, Peter. (eds.) The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. St Martin's Griffin, 1994.
  9. ^ Motavalli, Jim. "Rights from Wrongs. A Movement to Grant Legal Protection to Animals is Gathering Force", E Magazine, March/April 2003.
  10. ^ Alok Jha (2005-12-05). "RSPCA outrage as experiments on animals rise to 2.85m". The Guardian.,,1663535,00.html. Retrieved 2008-06-26.  
  11. ^ Tom Geoghegan (2007-05-29). "Should apes have human rights?". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 2008-06-26.  

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