Austrian Courts: Chimpanzees Are Not People
In response to a lawsuit filed by an animal rights organization, the Austrian Supreme Court has ruled that a chimpanzee named Matthew Hiasl Pan is not, in fact, a person under the law:
A chimpanzee cannot be declared a person, Austria’s Supreme Court has ruled, activists said on Tuesday.
An animal rights group had sought to have the chimp, Matthew Hiasl Pan, declared a person in hopes of gaining guardianship of the animal.
The shelter where Matthew has lived for 25 years is going bankrupt, threatening to leave him homeless. Donors have offered to help support him, but under Austrian law, only a person can receive personal gifts.
The Vienna-based Association Against Animal Factories sought to have him declared a person and petitioned to be appointed Matthew’s trustee.
But the high court upheld a September ruling by a judge in the town of Wiener Neustadt rejecting the petition, the group said on Tuesday.
This is obviously the right result to the extent of our scientific knowledge to date, but I’m sympathetic with the litigating group’s aim here, which seems to be primarily directed towards being named guardian of the chimpanzee so that they can guarantee its protection, although given that it seems to be a rather radical group, it may be that the intent was to declare chimpanzees to be persons all along.
That said, I do think that chimpanzees and other intelligent animals, particularly primates, deserve a higher level of legal protection than they currently possess. Indeed, I’m not entirely certain that, in the long run, we can safely write them off as “non-persons”. Experimentation in this area is limited, but there is at least one famous experiment which suggests that if chimpanzees are raised as humans with humans, they will behave as though they are human to the limits of their physical structure. It’s easy to write off chimpanzees as “lesser” because they in many ways act like animals and don’t appear to be capable of learning much language once they are adults. Still, the same can also be said for feral children who are found raised by animals–frequently such children are not able to adapt to human society and some are never capable of learning language. So I think that the area of animal cognition is important and merits a great deal of study, which is why those species that we might have to give some benefit of the doubt to with respect to personhood are worthy of greater protection under the law.