Will Chimp Life Get Human Rights?
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Hiasl, a 26-year old Austrian-based chimpanzee, is petitioning the courts for human status, and let me be the first to extend him a warm welcome to our species.
My animal rights activism has never gone beyond the cage-free eggs' stage; it's the human possibilities raised by Hiasl's case that caught my attention. If a chimpanzee can be declared a person, then there's nothing in the way of a person becoming an ape -- and I'm not just talking about a retroactive status applied to ex-husbands. In fact, I predict a surge in trans-specied people, who will eagerly go over to the side of the chimps.
The transition need not involve costly, time-consuming, surgical arm extensions and whole-body Rogaine treatments, since we are practically chimpanzees already. We share 99 percent of our genome with them, making it possible for chimps to accept human blood transfusions and kidney donations. Despite their vocal limitations, they communicate easily with each other and can learn human languages. They use tools and live in groups that display behavioral variations attributable to what anthropologists recognize as culture. And we may be a lot closer biologically than Darwin ever imagined.
Last May, paleontologists reported evidence of inter-breeding between early humans and chimps as recently as 5 million years ago, and proposed that modern humans are the result of this ancient predilection for bestiality.
Hiazl's motivation is economic: The animal sanctuary where he resides has run out of funds, and, in Austria, only a person can receive personal donations. Many humans in this country may be similarly motivated to seek chimp status. There are individuals who commit crimes in order to gain access to the free food and medical care available in a prison. How much easier and more pleasant to have oneself declared a chimp and win entry to the soft life of a zoo animal! Not only are the guards friendly, but one's enclosure has been designed with far more psychological forethought than the average office or cubicle.
True, not all chimps have it as easy as Hiazl, who spends most of his time watching TV. There's the danger of being sold to a pharmaceutical company for research, for example, but this should decline as chimps achieve human status. We can't expect much progress on chimpanzee rights in Bush's America, according to Elizabeth Hess, author of the forthcoming book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human . But in addition to the Austrian debate, the Spanish parliament is considering a bill to extend "fundamental moral and legal protections" to apes. Once apes achieve these protections, American humans are going to want them too. I'm thinking food, shelter, and medical/veterinary care.
Another reason to make the human-to-ape transition is the sex, at least if you're smart enough to declare yourself a bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee. Bonobos, who are genetically as close to humans as larger chimpanzees, use sex much as we use handshakes - as a form of greeting between individuals in any gender combination. See an old friend, and you start rubbing genitals together, with mutual orgasm serving as a hearty "How ya doin', pal?" Plus, bonobo bands are female-dominated, which should be a special enticement to women investigating their chimpanzee transition options.
There are is another, less selfish reason, to seek chimpanzee status. Like me, you may be a wee bit disappointed in our own species. Here we are - the tool-wielding, word-spouting brainiacs of the earth -- and what have we done with our powers? We've poisoned the world, encrusted it with our unsightly infrastructure, and exterminated most of our fellow earth-dwellers, from elephants and tigers to fish.
Of course, what makes humans especially obnoxious is our tendency to believe in our absolute superiority over all creatures. We alone, of all species, have come up with religions and philosophies that declare us uniquely deserving of global hegemony. Yet one by one, our "unique" human traits have turned out to be shared: Chimpanzees have culture; dolphins make art (in the form of bubble patterns); female vampire bats share food with their friends; male baboons will die to defend their troop; rats have recently demonstrated a capability for reflection that resembles consciousness. We are animals, and they are us.
But just because you want, for whatever reason, to attain the status of a chimp, don't assume that you'll make the cut. Just as we don't know how the Austrian court will rule in Hiasl's case, we have no reason to believe that the chimps will have us.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 13 books, most recently "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."