Primate Rights

A New York state appeals court has rejected a request to issue a writ of habeas corpus to free two chimpanzees who are kept in cages — one in a warehouse in Gloversville, New York, and the other in a storefront in Niagara Falls, New York.  The writ sought to have the primates moved from their cages to an animal sanctuary.

article-2034439-0dbb7fa500000578-543_306x338In the case, the New York courts were presented with expert evidence “that chimpanzees exhibit many of the same social, cognitive and linguistic capabilities as humans and therefore should be afforded some of the same fundamental rights as humans.”  In a nutshell, however, the court of appeals concluded — correctly, in my view — that the fact that chimpanzees exhibit some humanlike characteristics is simply not enough to make them “persons” in the eyes of the law.  The court reasoned that “[t]he asserted cognitive and linguistic capabilities of chimpanzees do not translate to a chimpanzee’s capacity or ability, like humans, to bear legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions.”  And, the court added, the flip side of personhood would mean that chimpanzees could be held criminally accountable for killing or injuring humans — something that has not been done, obviously, because chimpanzees do not have moral culpability for such acts, nor do they have the capacity to understand the proceedings against then or to assist in their own defense, which is what courts typically look for in deciding whether a defendant is competent.

You can read the court of appeals decision here.

Although I think the law cannot recognize primates like chimpanzees as “people,” with all of the rights of people, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be afforded some rights, beyond being viewed as mere property.  The court of appeals’ decision summarizes expert evidence that indicates that chimpanzees have an impressive array of qualities that we associate with thinking beings, such as “recognizing themselves in reflections,” “setting and acting toward goals such as obtaining food,” “communicating about events in the past and their intentions for the future, such as by pointing or using sign language,” “protecting others in risky situations, such as when relatively strong chimpanzees will examine a road before guarding more vulnerable chimpanzees as they cross the road,” “making and using complex tools for hygiene, socializing, communicating, hunting, gathering, and fighting,” “counting and ordering items using numbers,” “showing concern for the welfare of others, particularly their offspring, siblings, and even orphans they adopt,” and “resolving conflicts” and “apologizing.”

At some point, we need to ask ourselves — do creatures that exhibit these kinds of qualities and characteristics really deserve to be put into cages at the whim of whoever purchases them?

Using Crutches As Tools

At one time, scientists theorized that humans are distinguished from other animals by their ability to use objects as tools. Then they discovered that chimpanzees use sticks to get tasty ants out of anthills, and that theory went by the wayside.

Still, there’s something about using tools that is innately appealing to humans. We are instinctively drawn to labor-saving devices. If an invention makes our lives easier — and, particularly, if it allows us to remain prone and otherwise immobile while we are using it — we are going to go for it every time.

I’ve been exercising this inherent human characteristic by experimenting with new uses for my crutches. Sure, they’re perfectly useful for their intended purpose of allowing people with leg injuries to hobble unsteadily to and fro, but it turns out they’re plenty useful for other things, too — particularly for those people who have dogs around the house. For example, I’ve used my crutch tools for a number of other actions:

* Crutches are light enough and long enough to allow you to push a door shut when dogs inexplicably start barking during the middle of a conference call

* The rubber tip on the end of a crutch is well-suited to lifting and tossing dog blankets and shoving aside other obstacles that might entangle the crutch-user, to gently prodding and awakening snoring dogs, to retrieving towels from a faraway towel rack, and to pulling within reach of the invalid footstools, satchels, and other needed items

* Crutches allow you to successfully scratch the small of your back

I’m still working on other ways to use the handy crutch, but right now I’m wondering — is there anything crutches can’t do?

Apes And Their Mid-Life Crises

Scientists have completed a study that suggests that great apes, like their human cousins, have “mid-life crises.”  The study found that well-being in orangutans and chimpanzees follows a U-shaped curve also found in humans, starting high in youth, dipping low during middle age, and then climbing again in old age.

Researchers decided to test the primate mid-life crisis hypothesis when Las Vegas residents reported seeing large gangs of paunchy orangutans, sporting bad toupees and tight Hawaiian shirts, prowling the Strip and attempting to convince female bar patrons that they really liked hip-hop music.  At the same time, shopkeepers in Rwanda disclosed a spike in sales of Clairol, while observers of gorilla groups in the Congo described male apes determinedly hunting for purple bananas and male and female chimps inexplicably lounging in hillside bathtubs.

In a ground-breaking effort, researchers were able to interview middle-aged apes who had learned American sign language in an attempt to determine the cause of their vague feelings of dissatisfaction.  One fidgety female chimp, for example, complained incessantly of feeling bloated and repeatedly adjusted the thermostat in the room during the interview process.

A Silverback with poorly dyed back fur explained that, after years of rooting for grubs and berries and grooming other members of his gorilla community, he was seeing no end in sight.  He had grown tired of constantly having to establish his dominance over younger apes, he added, was bored with his daily routine, and had begun to wonder whether there was anything else to his life. The revealing interview was cut short when another researcher mistakenly brought a young female gorilla into the room, causing the Silverback to suck in his gut, beat his chest, and lose interest in further communications.

Ah, Science!

Here’s an article on an odd experiment that suggests that chimps can differentiate between the volume of liquid poured into a cup and, for the most part, accurately select the cup that holds more tasty fruit juice than the other cup does.  Fine, but . . . where do they come up with these experiments, anyway?

I think chimps are probably much smarter than most people realize.  Indeed, the chimps in this experiment probably were wondering what generalized weirdness the guy in the white lab coat was up to this time.

Chimp No. 1:  “He’s at it again.”

Chimp No. 2:  What is it now?  Another test involving banana-flavored pellets?”

Chimp No. 1:  “No, it appears to be an experiment designed to determine if we can distinguish between the volume of liquid contained in opaque containers.”

Chimp No. 2:  “Do we get fruit juice out of it?”

Chimp No. 1:  “Apparently, yes.”

Chimp No. 2:  “Who cares, then?  Let’s humor the guy.”