I am a chimpanzee.
I live in a cage with nowhere to swing; I am forced to stand night and day on a sloping wire mesh floor that painfully cuts into my feet. The air is so full of ammonia that my lungs hurt and my eyes burn – I think I am going blind. The fluorescent lights are blinding, the constant hum of machines deafening. If I were free, I would roam the ancestral jungles with my family. I would have been one with nature, giving and receiving pleasure as a whole being. I am only a year old, but I am already spent.
On the opposite end of the spectrum there is a troop of chimpanzees living in their natural habitat in West Africa who have been kicking back on a Friday night with a drink in their hands. The troop are the focus of a study looking into the way that humans and chimpanzees share a genetic mutation that allows us to metabolise ethanol or, in other words, process alcohol.
The chimpanzees have discovered and helped themselves to the natives’ alcoholic drink, palm wine which is a brew derived from the sap of the raffia palm. Humans cut a wedge into the palm creating a tap which allows the sap to drip from the palm into a bucket. The bucket is covered with leaves and left to ferment, creating a drink similar to cider. Chimpanzees, however, have the cognitive ability to fabricate a sponge from leaves allowing them to soak up the brew and have a drink. Like humans, they seem to find enjoyment from drinking. Over the course of 17 years, the study has found that each chimpanzee drinks until they’ve had their fill, equating on average to about four schooners.
(Chimpanzee drinking raffia palm wine. Source: Wildlife Research Facility of Kyoto University)
These chimpanzees could be considered the lucky ones, not because they can have a drink, but because they are being observed and studied in their natural habitat. For many other chimpanzees, life is not so great and they spend their days confined in laboratories.
In 2010, the European Union banned the use of chimpanzees to be used in research and animal testing. America, land of the free, and Gabon are the only countries in the world that still conduct invasive experiments on chimpanzees. For 900 chimpanzees used for research in America, their life never goes beyond a laboratory cage.
Such is the life of Leo and Hercules, chimpanzees who, since birth, have been held captive at a research lab in Stony Brooke University, America. If they are lucky enough to relieve their paws and leave their cages, it’s only to be strapped to a CT scanner and experimented with. Leo and Hercules are part of a study by the university looking into bipedalism. Bipedalism is about our ability to walk on two legs and the evolutionary process that led to our ability to walk. The university is studying the mechanics, energetics, and control of bipedal locomotion in chimpanzees.
However, Leo and Hercules have become the poster chimps for animal rights. Their future, rights and wellbeing now lie in the hands of Justice Barbara Jaffe presiding over a habeas corpus hearing in the New York County Supreme Court. A habeus corpus (Latin for ‘you have the body’) simply directs a capture to justify a prisoner’s detention before a court.
Attorney Steven M. Wise, founder of The Nonhuman Rights Project (NHRP), has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Leo and Hercules to fight for their freedom. Justice Barbara Jaffe has presented an order directing officials at Stoney Brooke University to show cause for holding the two chimps captive. When contacted for comment, the university told The Newsroom, “The University does not comment on the specifics of litigation, and awaits the court’s full consideration on this matter.”
Many organisations fight for animal rights, although Project R&R (Release & Restitution For Chimpanzees in US Laboratories) and the Nonhuman Rights Project (NHRP) are working towards recognition for chimpanzee rights in the eyes of the law, and fight for their freedom from the inside – with proactive action, as opposed to reactive action. Their collective mission is to change the common law status of animals from mere “things”, which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to “persons”, who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty. In doing so animal rights can be dealt with not as a matter of conscience, but a matter of law and justice.
The suffering of chimpanzees and other animals used for research is not limited to what goes on in actual experiments. Their day-to-day existence in a laboratory is traumatic in itself. Chimpanzees experience ongoing mental and physical suffering from the endless boredom, confinement, fear and stress of daily laboratory life. In 2011, the US Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report titled Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity. The study concluded that while the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in the past, most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees is not necessary.
Chimpanzees share 95 per cent of their DNA with human beings. We have organ systems that work in the same manner, which are controlled by the same bodily systems. Our livers both interact with our blood streams and nervous system. Different neurotransmitters and hormones work the same in their systems as they do ours. Chemicals and compounds are received much the same way. Thus, the use of chimpanzees in scientific studies is largely due to their genetic similarity to humans.
Chimpanzees have been used in biomedical research to gain an understanding of various diseases that affect human beings. In the case of some infectious diseases, such as hepatitis B, chimpanzees are the only non-human species that can be infected with the causative micro-organism. Chimpanzees have long done their part for medical research. They have been inoculated and infected; they have even donated their blood. Their contributions have aided the understanding and treatment of hepatitis and auto-immune diseases. As man’s closest primate relative, they are excellent stand-ins for humans.
The argument that the NHRP is putting forward is that if chimps share so many similarities with humans, we should extend the same common courtesy, respect and dignity that we are entitled to under the constitution and Declaration Of Human Rights to our closest living relative. They should be given the same rights as us under the law.
To this day they are still considered property. They are poached and taken from their natural habitats, separated from their families and held against their will. They are used to satisfy the needs of our experiments and are used, abused and treated like objects for amusement, entertainment and financial gain. The law does not currently allow them any rights, allowing humans to treat them any way they like.
But should the law intervene? It’s an existential question that has been left unanswered for years. We have been making substantial progress over the years and the case of Leo and Hercules is the crucial next step in the matter.
If these laws go through, it will be the first major change to animal rights. The Newsroom spoke to one of Australia’s most recognised veterinarians, Dr Katrina Warren, who said, “It will be the most progressive advance in animal rights that we will see in our lifetime. It is a very complex case in the eyes of the law but it shouldn’t be.”
“The principle is simple: the saying treat others as you would want to be treated should not apply exclusively to humans, but to all living creatures,” she said.
The case is currently adjourned while a decision is being made. Whatever the outcome will be, it will have huge implications for fellow species that also call this planet home. It was Leonardo Da Vinci who once said: “The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.” That day is here, that time is now.
If you are interested in how this plays out and the implications it has, check out the PETA petition. – Dominic Andrew
Top photo supplied by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NHRP).