Great Apes Deserve Protection


By Debra Durham, Ph.D.


Thanks to decades of fieldwork by scientists from around the globe, we know a great deal about chimpanzees. We’ve learned that chimpanzees are intelligent and sensitive, possess varied cultural traditions and form deep, lasting relationships. But the current state of knowledge delves even deeper.

Last June, scientists explained how chimps would freely choose to help a human if they saw that he or she needed help. A few months earlier, there were reports describing how chimpanzees showed special kindness and compassion toward a group member who had cerebral palsy. Indeed, cooperation, sharing and a sense of justice are core components of chimpanzee societies. Humans can no longer claim uniqueness in the realm of virtues.

Even more recently, chimpanzees used in experimentation have been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Humans and chimpanzees suffering the duress of chronic fear and deprivation show the same suite of symptoms. It is well established that our two species share a common neurobiology, but this study, published in a psychiatric journal, demonstrates that we also share a common psychobiology. Psychiatric diagnosis and treatment used to address the minds and emotions of humans are also valid for other apes.

It comes as no surprise, then, that chimpanzees would have an interest in their own well-being. Last year, scientist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh interviewed bonobo chimpanzees who had learned to use language about their own wants and needs-in short, about their welfare. Their responses included spending their lives with their friends and loved ones and specifically living free from the fear of being harmed by humans. The interests of chimpanzees, it seems, echo those of many human petitioners seeking asylum before the law: the simple right to live free of oppression.

Our society has reached a critical ethical crossroad: Do we keep our legal systems and practices entrenched in the conventions of a less-enlightened era or bring them up to date? Given everything that we have learned about chimpanzees, we must ask, “What is it exactly that prevents society and its policies from being consistent with what we now know?”

We need not feel threatened by Spain’s new regulations. In light of the fact that countries from Austria to New Zealand and Liberia have already banned or abandoned chimpanzee experiments, the action of the Spanish parliament was both a logical and ethical imperative. The alternative-to allow great apes to continue to languish and suffer-would demean our own sense of self, our humanity.

This is not an “either/or” dilemma: The actions of the Spanish parliament don’t weaken the case for human rights-they bolster it. In a world in which ethnic conflict, global warming and loss of biodiversity cast broad shadows, we should welcome opportunities to create a more inclusive and compassionate global community. I hope that others agree and will lend enthusiastic support to Spain’s compassionate efforts. The U.S. and other nations throughout the world should stand ready to extend protection and recognize dignity for our great ape cousins too.

Debra Durham, Ph.D., primate specialist for PETA, has a doctoral degree in animal behavior and has studied primates for the last 10 years. Contact her c/o People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;