I just finished the recently published Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess and then immediately picked up Roger Fouts’, Next of Kin, which is about Washoe and the other chimps to whom he has taught sign language over his long career as a psychologist. I recommend both books (although my preference isFouts’ Next of Kin). They describe the language studies conducted with chimpanzees during the 1970s and 80s, the astonishing reality of human-chimpanzee communication in our language, and the aftermath for the celebrity chimps.
These books reminded me of my brief volunteer work in David Premack’s primate facility at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Premack had written a book about his research chimp, Sarah, to whom he taught a symbolic language. After reading his book, The Mind of an Ape, in 1985, I called Dr. Premack to see if I could volunteer at his lab. He agreed. I was so eager to meet Sarah, but I felt heartbroken when I did. Although she had quite a spacious cage, she was alone, separated from both humans and other chimps. She was 12 when I met her, and I was told she was too big, strong, and dangerous to interact with people, except through the bars of her cage. Although chimpanzees are social animals, she had no chimp companions. The other chimpanzees at the facility were just a few years old, and while these young ones were caged together, I was told Sarah might harm them if allowed to be with them. And so, while Sarah could often see the other chimps when they were outdoors, she was isolated.
I was told to keep my distance from Sarah, warned that if I got too close to her cage she could grab my arm and pull it off, but one day, standing several feet away, I said to Sarah, “Turn around and I’ll scratch your back.” I twirled my index finger as I spoke, and sure enough, Sarah turned around, pressed her back against the bars of her cage, and sank down to sit on the floor. I walked up to her cage and scratched her back, not worried in the slightest that she would harm me.
I’ve recently learned that Sarah now lives in a primate sanctuary. This is a tremendous relief, because I feared for her future. I had volunteered with the best intentions, imagining that language studies with chimpanzees were not only benign, but wonderful. Reading Next of Kin and Nim Chimpsky reminded me that these studies were anything but. Although Sarah, despite her imprisonment, was treated with great kindness when I volunteered at Dr.Premack’s lab, the chimps in other facilities were often brutalized (as Dr. Fouts describes at length). But even if they were all treated well, chimpanzees live for half a century. Trendy language studies of the 1970sdidn’t carry into future decades very far. In fact, Dr. Premack stopped his research only two years after I volunteered at his facility. The chimpanzees, dangerous and expensive to house and feed for the duration of their lives, were often sold to biomedical research labs, used for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and military research, and other forms of invasive experiments. Many have wound up in tiny isolated cages, going mad, suffering unrelieved depression and anxiety, in addition to the misery of their testing protocols. Raised as human children, and experiencing themselves as human children, such chimps are, ultimately, no more than property, and many have been sold into ghastly, nightmarish lives of abuse.
There’s a way to stop this abuse of our closest living relatives. The Great Ape Project (GAP) seeks to secure rights for great apes. Their declaration is as follows:
We demand the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes: human beings, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans. The community of equals is the moral community within which we accept certain basic moral principles or rights as governing our relations with each other and enforceable at law. Among these principles or rights are the following:
- The Right to Life – The lives of members of the community of equals are to be protected. Members of the community of equals may not be killed except in very strictly defined circumstances, for example, self-defense.
- The Protection of Individual Liberty – Members of the community of equals are not to be arbitrarily deprived of their liberty; if they should be imprisoned without due legal process, they have the right to immediate release. The detention of those who have not been convicted of any crime, or of those who are not criminally liable, should be allowed only where it can be shown to be for their own good, or necessary to protect the public from a member of the community who would clearly be a danger to others if at liberty. In such cases, members of the community of equals must have the right to appeal, either directly or, if they lack the relevant capacity, through an advocate, to a judicial tribunal.
- The Prohibition of Torture – The deliberate infliction of severe pain on a member of the community of equals, either wantonly or for an alleged benefit to others, is regarded as torture, and is wrong.
You may have heard that in 2008 the parliament in Spain passed a resolution granting certain human rights to great apes. That resolution was based on the work of the Great Ape Project.
If you would like to sign the GAP declaration, learn more, or get involved, I recommend visiting the The Great Ape Project, and reading the books mentioned above.
Filed under: animal protection, citizen activism | Tagged: animal experimentation, animal oppression, animal protection, bonobos, campaigns, chimpanzees, citizen activism, gorillas, Great Ape Project, great apes, language, orangutans, rights | Comments Off