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Chimps R Us: How Much Longer Are We Going to Keep Our Cousins as Pets?

A life of captivity is too cruel for chimpanzees and dangerous for their owners. We should give them the freedoms we grant ourselves.
 
 
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Nobody should own a chimpanzee. Not in America. Not even in Africa, home of all chimpanzees not born in captivity.

The gruesome attack by an adult chimpanzee on its Connecticut owner last month provided a vivid reminder of why Congress should impose a complete ban on keeping chimps as pets. .

Twenty states still permit this dubious instance of animal loving. Last month, the House has passed a bill ending this option. Now the Senate must do the same. The debate in Congress centers on practical reasons against keeping chimpanzees. They are simply too dangerous to live alongside humans; and caring for them properly, in a private home, is virtually impossible.

The utilitarian case against pet ownership obscures a wider moral lesson about relations between chimpanzees and their human kin. They are too much like us not to be included in our what intellectual historian David Hollinger calls "the circle of we.".

A close genetic relative to humans, chimpanzees are intelligent, sensitive, solve problems and form coherent social relationships. They plan, they improvise, they endure. For those who closely study or assist chimpanzees, either in the wild or in African sanctuaries, come to believe, as I do, that chimpanzees are as glorious as humans -- and deserve to exist on some roughly equal plane as us.

"Chimpanzees deserve to be treated with the same dignity as a human being," says Sheri Speede, an Oregon veterinarian who runs a large chimp sanctuary in the West African country of Cameroon. "They are entitled to the same quality of life as we are."

If Speede is correct, should not chimpanzees be as free as humans? Should the nation debate -- with the same energy shown in the national conversation over the practice of keeping chimpanzees as pets -- ending the incarceration of the 269 chimpanzees now captive in 35 American zoos?

I perhaps have no standing to ask this question. I am not an expert in chimpanzees, nor have I been a militant defender of their rights and entitlements. At least not for very long.

My first close encounter with a chimpanzee came eight years ago. On a whim, I visited the zoo in Accra, Ghana. I saw an African woman inside a small enclosure, playing with an orphaned 1-year-old chimpanzee named Jimmy. Hunters had killed his mother.

The woman, named Chizo, was his surrogate mother. She joined Jimmy in his cage -- under the supervision of a primate expert from Europe -- bringing him some measure of natural development, since unrelated chimpanzees would not likely befriend him.

Baby chimpanzees are smarter than humans at the same age, research has shown (and orphaned chimps, given human care can be even smarter; one study, published in February, found that such chimps recorded higher scores on IQ tests than many human infants). As I returned to the zoo in successive days in order to strike up a friendship with Chizo, I came to agree with the scientific consensus, marveling at Jimmy's intelligence.

He quickly concluded, for instance, that I was a rival for Chizo's attention. And with an eerie insight, the afternoon that I first asked her on a date, Jimmy mounted a vigorous effort to prevent her from departing his cage, blocking the escape door over and over, even threatening to break out with her.

He kept me waiting on the other side of the bars. Time and again, I thought he'd planned this whole stalemate, simply to upset me. (Indeed, researchers in Sweden this month published a study documenting the "contingency plans" made by one adult chimp in a Swedish zoo.)

 
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