Closer than a Brother

An ongoing hot-button issue is the treatment of lab animals used in research, particularly chimpanzees and the other great apes—and specifically, should the latter have certain human legal rights?

Hiasl, a young chimpanzee smuggled out of Sierra Leone, was destined for an Austrian vivisection lab. Customs seized him, however, and he was sent to an animal sanctuary. That facility has gone bankrupt, so Hiasl, now 26, may yet end up in a lab, unless he can have a legal guardian appointed to administer funds donated for his upkeep. But, some say, only humans have the right to legal guardians; others, like primatologist Jane Goodall, have come to Hiasl’s defense.

Prorights arguments are weighed heavily with references to the ability of animals to communicate with us in various ways and to pass the self-awareness mirror test to demonstrates that sense, as well as their sharing 98 percent of our DNA.

As to DNA, even the reef-building coral Acropora millepora’s DNA contains genetic sequences corresponding to genes that pattern of the human nervous system, and mice share some 97.5 percent of their working DNA with us. Parrots talk; chimps can’t; dolphins and whales are communicators; elephants mourn and remember their fellows. What are their rights?

The British ceased using great apes in medical research, while the National Science Foundation (NSF) recommends that surplus chimps not be killed (as unneeded lab animals routinely are).

Any lab animal experimentation arouses the ire of animal activists, who, in turn, arrogate to themselves the right to torch the homes of, or kill, researchers and their families.

Some studies that sound ludicrous or abhorrent have specific rationales.

One study of the “sex life of bugs” was, in fact, isolating juvenile hormone to prevent the insect’s maturation, which had important implications for increased crop yields in Third World countries.

In 1937, it was discovered that the antibacterial sulfanilamide, highly successful in powders and pills, would dissolve in ethylene glycol. The liquid medication was not tested on animals, and by the time the elixir was discovered to be toxic, more than 100 people had died.

The thinking that allows our mistreatment of creatures boils down to: “I am human; that thing is not.” The closer to home, the narrower the definition of “human” must become to allow whites killing whites in Northern Ireland, blacks massacring blacks in Rwanda, and so on.

While the courts discuss the rights of Hiasl and other primates, we might do well to decide exactly what we owe all living creatures in terms of respect, along with the right not to be slaughtered needlessly, tortured, or driven out of their habitats.

A semantic start to considering ethical treatment of the greater apes—including mankind—might be to replace the phrase “dominion over” with “stewardship of.”

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