Friday, July 04, 2008

Are Apes People Too?

By Jenny Walters

A recent article entitled Animal-Rights Farm: Apes rights and the myth of animal equality by William Saletan discussed a “resolution headed for passage in the Spanish parliament” that will be supporting the Great Ape Project.[1]

The Great Ape Project (GAP) is an organization whose founding declaration states apes “may not be killed” or “arbitrarily deprived of their liberty.” The Spanish proposal will treat great apes “like humans of limited capacity, such as children or those who are mentally incompetent and are afforded guardians or caretakers to represent their interests.” The passage of this proposal would, “commit the (Spanish) government to ending involuntary use of apes in circuses, TV ads, and dangerous experiments.1

Peter Singer, the co-founder of GAP, states: “There is no sound moral reason why possession of basic rights should be limited to members of a particular species.” Saletan went on to state: “To borrow Martin Luther King’s rule, you should be judged by what’s inside you, not what’s on the surface.”1

Opponents of the GAP view this proposal as “egalitarian extremism.” Spanish newspapers and citizens complain that ape rights are “distracting lawmakers from human problems.”

According to one anti-animal rights reporter: “Animal rights activist believe a rat, is a pig, is a dog, is a boy.”1 In contrast, GAP believes “great apes experience an emotional and intellectual conscience similar to that of human children.” GAP demands humans, chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans are “members of the community of equals.” Singer adds: “GAP may pave the way for the extension of rights to all primates, or all mammals, or all animals.”1

The mission statement for GAP states, “great apes are entitled to rights based on their ‘morally significant characteristics.’”1 The mission reads as follows:

The idea is founded upon undeniable scientific proof that non-human great apes share more than genetically similar DNA with their human counterparts. They enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness. They share the intellectual capacity to create and use tools, learn and teach other languages. They remember their past and plan for their future. It is in recognition of these and other morally significant qualities that the Great Ape Project was founded.[2]

Saletan believes the GAP mission statement appeals to discrimination, not to universal equality; as most animals can’t make tool and don’t teach languages. He went on to compare the GAP mission to a “Moral Majority for vegans.”1

In a final note in the article, Saletan used a quote from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animal are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.”1

This article was interesting in pointing out both sides of the argument for great ape rights. The article reports: “We are closer genetically to a chimp than a mouse is to rat.”1 The article also describes how some animal rights activists believe “a rat, is a pig, is a dog, is a boy.” Personally, I am not sold on this of being the same as a rat. However, I do feel there should be basic rights set on place for all animals and I do support the GAP proposal.

As a pet owner, I can tell each of my dogs have their own unique personalities. To me, they are just furry humans.

[1] Saletan W. Animal-rights farm: ape rights and the myth of animal equality. July 2008. Available at: Accessed on July 3, 2008.
[2] The Great Ape Project. Mission statement. Available at: Accessed on July 4, 2008.

1 comment:

nancyiannone said...

I dare say this blog entry has impacted me a little differently than most of this blog’s daily readers. I’ve seen enough documentaries to appreciate the beauty of the great apes, and it seems like a good idea to extend protection to them. However, I see great irony when I read Peter’s Singer’s name in such close proximity to some of the quotes in this blog entry.

He supports a proposal that would treat great apes like those who are “mentally incompetent” and “may not be killed,” yet his position on individuals with Down syndrome like my daughter is that they be allowed to be killed shortly after birth. My guess is that only those in the front lines of the disability rights movement see the irony of his position.

This past fall I was a keynote speaker at Princeton University’s “Turning the World Upside Down” conference, planned and orchestrated by Princeton’s class of 2010. In a building near Professor Singer’s office, our introductory speaker, a young man named Brad who has Down syndrome, spoke of his love of golf and basketball, his experience earning varsity letters in these two high school sports, and his creation of an organization which pairs individuals with Down syndrome with professional golfers. He was quite an inspiration to the hundreds in the audience, many of whom were young individuals with Down syndrome.

After the children were whisked away for a day of fun with the Princeton volunteers, the tone was more somber as I and my fellow speakers advised these members of the New Jersey Down syndrome community what was facing perspective parents receiving a Down syndrome diagnosis. We brought them up to date on the current and near future in prenatal testing, presented the research showing the inadequacies of the medical community in delivering a diagnosis, and shared our own experiences in receiving a prenatal diagnosis, often marked by inadequate information, insensitive or prejudicial remarks, or pressure to terminate.

For many in the audience, these two opening presentations epitomized the current status of Down syndrome in today’s America: for so many individuals with Down syndrome, modern society offers the opportunity to lead healthier, happier, and more productive lives than at any point in history, while today’s modern reproductive medical community seeks out more accurate methods of weeding out people with Down syndrome before they are born.

Peter Singer’s position on acceptable newborn euthanasia of individuals like my daughter is troubling on its face as an indicator of the prejudice and ignorance many of us face. Even more disturbing is that his position as the head of the bio-ethics department at Princeton University gives him a platform and a leadership position in academia, giving him a built-in audience of future physicians. But what adds salt to the wound of intolerance is Professor Singer’s position on animal rights. It is baffling to so many of us to see someone so open-minded to the beauty and wonder of the great apes, but unable to envision the beauty and wonder of a human being like my daughter, and unable to recognize his own ignorance as to the value of the life of an individual with Down syndrome.

I urge Professor Singer to take Dr. King’s advice (as noted by Saletan) to judge what is inside, not on the surface, of people like my daughter.

Nancy Iannone
Contributing Author
Gift, Mothers Reflect on How Children with Down Syndrome Enrich Their Lives