Chimp Change

This particular metaphor, however, dilutes or even contaminates the animal rights message by its uncomfortable proximity with the most vile and vicious of centuries-old racial stereotyping. "To compare any class of humans to apes is ipso facto dehumanizing to the people concerned," Marks says. "The targets are always the people whose own rights are the most precarious—blacks in America, the Irish in England, and now the mentally disabled. It has a long history; it has never, ever been intended as a compliment; and it is simply biologically bankrupt." In What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee (University of California, 2002) Marks cites the astonishing cover art for the 1996 Houghton Mifflin publication Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence: a 1933 illustration by the Swiss anatomist Adolph Schultz comparing the body proportions of a gorilla to a man Schultz identified as an "adult Negro."

To make the point again but with tongue in cheek, Marks also directs this reporter to; it's worth noting that this very paper expressed its displeasure with George W. Bush's ascension via the cover salute "Hail to the Chimp" and a correspondingly simian portrait.

illustration: Anthony Freda

Wise suggests that "proportional rights" could be allocated to nonhuman animals according to their level of practical autonomy. "The legal scale needs to approximate the biological scale," he says. "Darwinian evolution would imply a seamless continuum from a virus all the way to human beings. It doesn't make sense to treat them all the same." Nor should humans be splitting hairs on issues of chimpanzee culture. "Whether or not chimpanzees have an advanced technological society is utterly irrelevant. Human beings have an infinite number of rights, and many of them make no sense with respect to chimpanzees. We're not talking about the right to vote or practice religion or petition the government. The fact that they can't send someone to the moon doesn't mean that we have the right to do biomedical research on them."

Ironically, Marks poses a similar argument to arrive at the opposite conclusion. "I know of no basis in the human species where smart people should have more rights than dumb people," he says. "What does it mean to give a chimpanzee an IQ test and say, 'Well, it's really smart, therefore it should get human rights'? That presupposes that we use a scale of intelligence as a basis for allocation of rights for humans, and we don't."

But a cognitive scale to measure animal minds could provide a basis for the most divisive and wrenching of issues: deciding which species, if any, can be ethically used in invasive experimentation. (No fewer than 10 scientists who work with animal models—ranging from cardiovascular disease in lab rats to AIDS in primates—either declined or did not acknowledge interview requests for this article.) A practical-autonomy rubric could potentially separate those animals who feel pain from those who feel pain intelligently—that is, those who suffer.

On this count, it's safe to say that even the staunchest supporters of animal use in biomedical research feel some measure of regret or ambivalence about the use of great apes. Invasive chimpanzee experimentation all but ceased in Great Britain after the early '70s, and the government formally prohibited the practice in November 1997. Japan has also called a moratorium. Stateside, chimps are still used in investigations of malaria and hepatitis C. In the '80s, hundreds were infected with HIV in clinical settings, but in 1999, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases called a halt to new infections.

"Because chimps take such a long time to progress to AIDS, they are not a practical model for developing vaccines," explains Lillian Lee Kim, chief of public relations at the Yerkes center. "Scientists have moved to using rhesus macaque monkeys, which do develop AIDS-like illness much more quickly than humans." (Harriet Robinson's vaccine candidate, developed using macaques at Yerkes, is now entering clinical trials.) Paradoxically, chimps' physiological similarities to people—which is the most compelling reason both for and against their use in biomedical research—ruled them out of conscription into the war on AIDS.

It's another paradox that captive primates, even granted bodily integrity through legal personhood, most likely represent the future of their species. Plagued by deforestation and the increasingly commercialized "bushmeat" trade, wild great apes in sub-Saharan Africa are disappearing. As few as 150,000 chimpanzees survive there today, down from 2 million a century ago. "I'm pretty fatalistic about their plight in the wild," Boysen says, "but that gives us even greater responsibility to try to create situations in captivity in which the animals can maintain their behavioral integrity. And that doesn't mean getting a liver punch every week."

In a July speech at an animal rights conference in Virginia, Peter Singer invoked the Judeo-Christian ethic of mankind's "dominion" over animals as a roadblock to securing their rights. But humans—from the radical warriors of the Animal Liberation Front to meat-eating cosmetics researchers—have dominion over nonhumans whether they like it or not. Freeing captive apes would effectively authorize their extinction. Boysen's team of chimps—most of them rescued from adverse environments, and all of them beloved—are enculturated for the enhancement of human knowledge. And every tenet of the animal rights debate boils down to anthropomorphic projections: How similar to me is this creature, and therefore which of my rights do I assign her? Improving Barney's plight at the Game Farm, after all, hinged on a human being's "aesthetic interests." Perhaps the editors of Nature had that case in mind recently, when they published an editorial on the use of nonhuman primates in biomedical research and titled it "Distasteful but Necessary."

Research assistance: Ben Kenigsberg

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