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.

FILED UNDER: Europe, Supreme Court, ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. mainline says:

    I’m probably a little sketchy on the legal terminology being used here but I beleive the term “person” is being used to mean a being deserving of certain rights (currently given only to humans). This would satisfy’s 4th definition of a person:

    4. Philosophy. a self-conscious or rational being.

    So I’m not sure that the semantics being promoted by the litigating group are “unscientific”.
    Apes are surly conscious of there existence and are are rational (though not as intelligent as humans of course)

    When determining whether an organism has an interest in not suffering I think the only characteristic it needs is sentience. Also, if an organism has an interest in not suffering then that interest should be protected or we would be contradicting ourselves. Considerations such as how much humans can sometimes be like animals and vice-versa, an animals ability to reason, use language, etc…, aren’t important. We protect the rights of infants and the mentally enfeebled without regard to their intellects because we understand they are sentient. To be consistent with our ethics, we must do the same for all animals not just humans.

  2. DL says:

    This is not about how human chimps are but just more of the confused attempt to lower man to the level of animals and deny his unique and precious character (made in the image of God)

    It all reminds me of the texts still being use in today’s schools where nature is still taught as -“there’s no difference between a boy, a dog and a rat.”(bidiversity) small wonder that people are behaving as they are -like…er…animals!

  3. grampagravy says:

    People “behaving like animals” predates anything taught in schools today. In fact it predates schools.

  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    Wouldn’t the simpler answer be to fund the shelter that was going bankrupt? Rather than spending money of ‘novel’ legal theories.

  5. DL says:

    “People “behaving like animals” predates anything taught in schools today. In fact it predates schools.”

    True enough grampagravy, but I haven’t yet heard of chimps murdering over 50 million of their own children recently. We are trying hard to eradicate civilization by rejecting natural law and we’ll pay for it dearly.

  6. grampagravy says:

    I would say that pointing out humans are more murderous than chimps reinforces the implications of my initial statement. Don’t you think that the whole “made in the image of god” thing is sort of weakened by the fact we are the most prolific killers on earth? Maybe some of the problem lies in that arrogance, along with our self-appointed status as the arbiters of “natural law.” Maybe accepting that we are just animals with huge reproductive advantages over the other animals would make us more responsible at the individual level. You know, like this is the only game we have, let’s take care of it. No Great Googly to pin things on or make it all better some day in never-never land.

  7. DL says:

    Grampygravy (love that name)

    “Don’t you think that the whole “made in the image of god” thing is sort of weakened by the fact we are the most prolific killers on earth?”

    Not at all. Being made in the image of God means that we not only have high intellegence but also have free will (unlike chimps)to recognize evil( natural law and revelation)

    Whether we choose to follow the proper course is what determines the evil we do. It is the highest form of freedom.

    It is man not following the “makers manual” that is the problem – not our nature – nor our ability to either good or evil. Man inherantly, as God said is “Good” and then He rested…

  8. floyd says:

    If the group were serious about protecting the chimp, which they obviously were not, they could choose a qualified person to donate their money to[including the court costs]. Then that person could simply BUY the chimp and take care of it for the balance of it’s life.

  9. grampagravy says:

    It is not about the chimp. It is about the influence of superstition on the legal system.