Are Chimps People?

When it comes to fighting for the rights of chimpanzees, at least one lawyer isn't monkeying around.

Steven Wise, president of the Florida-based Nonhuman Rights Project, plans to file a lawsuit soon on behalf of a captive chimpanzee he hopes to free. He won't say where he intends to file the lawsuit, or how the chimpanzee is being used in captivity. However, he said he plans to file a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the animal is a person and ought to be transferred to a sanctuary.

He has been laying the groundwork for this legal action for almost three decades. He told Healthline that as long as the animals are classified as “things,” they will never be granted their freedom.

Wise wants the chimpanzee freed on moral grounds. Recent studies show the primates are extremely intelligent, leading many to believe they should not be used for medical research.

More and more scientists—including those at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Institute of Medicine—are coming around to Wise's point of view. They believe the animals are no longer much needed for medical research anyway.

In a news release last month, Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the NIH, said the organization has decided to retire all but 50 of its captive primates. In the past decade, the NIH has funded the most chimpanzee research of any organization.

“Americans have benefited greatly from the chimpanzees’ service to biomedical research, but new scientific methods and technologies have rendered their use in research largely unnecessary,” Collins said. “Their likeness to humans has made them uniquely valuable for certain types of research, but also demands greater justification for their use. After extensive consideration with the expert guidance of many, I am confident that greatly reducing their use in biomedical research is scientifically sound and the right thing to do.”

The NIH's decision came on the heels of a report it commissioned in December 2011 by the Institute of Medicine to examine the use of chimps in research labs. The report concluded that “recent advances in alternate research tools, including cell-based technologies and other animal models, have rendered chimpanzees largely unnecessary as research subjects.”

Building on this sea change, Wise said that in addition to his first lawsuit on behalf of a chimp, he plans to file several more in jurisdictions throughout the U.S.

He plans to file lawsuits on behalf of other animals as well, including elephants and African gray parrots, which also have superior intelligence. However, he said he's never considered filing a lawsuit on behalf of a mouse or rat, animals that are also widely used for medical research.

How Similar Are Chimps and Humans?

Wise has been gaining notoriety in his quest to grant animals personhood for nearly 30 years. Famed primatologist Jane Goodall is on the board of directors of his organization, which has 70 volunteers and paid employees.

Lori Marino, science director of the Nonhuman Rights Project and senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology at the Center for Ethics at Emory University, has worked with chimpanzees in the past during cognitive studies at Emory's primate center.

“The whole experience is very surreal because you can't work with them without getting to know them as individuals,” Marino told Healthline. “They're a person. When you're on the outside of the cage and they're on the inside, they become keenly aware of that and the inequity and it has to make you uncomfortable.”

Wise said chimps can plan ahead, think back and remember things, and act intentionally to get what they want.

“They can deceive. They have the capacity to get involved in fairly complex conversations using either computer systems or modified sign language," Wise said. "They can find things spread out over miles. They know when fruits are ripening. They can use tools to make tools. They can teach their young. They're just extraordinary, cognitively complex things.”

Just last week, a study published in Current Biology described the ways chimpanzee memory mirrors that of human beings.

“It's not like being with another distantly related animal and seeing human properties,” Marino said of the chimps. “It's right there in their face. Their facial expressions, their gestures...they're the same as ours.”

She described the pleasure of meeting Clint, a famed chimpanzee whose genome was decoded by scientists many years ago. He died in 2005 at the age of 24.

“He was a great guy,” Marino said. “He really was a wonderful, wonderful being—very laid back, very affable, especially for someone who had spent his life in a cage. He really enjoyed interacting. He was just, what can I say, I'm so fond of him.”

Marino recalled the horror and sadness of learning he had died. “The next time I saw him, I saw his brain in a jar.”

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