(This article was #64 in Discover Magazine’s top 100 stories of 2008.)
On June 25 the Spanish Parliament’s environmental committee approved a resolution to grant legal rights to great apes, covering chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. The resolution, expected to be enacted into law by June 2009, gives great apes the right to life and protects them from harmful research practices and exploitation for profit, such as use in films, commercials, and circuses.
“This is an important historical step,” says Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and cofounder of the Great Ape Project. Since 1993, when Singer and Italian philosopher Paola Cavalieri established the group, its members have advocated for a United Nations declaration that great apes, like humans, are entitled to life, liberty, and protection from torture.
The great apes’ ability to use language and tools, to feel pain, and to form lasting relationships with others is evidence, the Great Ape Project maintains, that apes are part of a “community of equals” with humans. “This decision is the first step to recognizing that the gulf between human and nonhuman animals is not absolute but a matter of degree,” Singer says. “I do hope it helps people look differently at their relationship with nonhuman animals.”
The resolution also calls for the Spanish government to promote a similar declaration throughout the European Union. Singer notes that the Netherlands, Britain, and countries in Scandinavia have already taken steps to phase out research harmful to great apes.