Going Ape

Published December 1, 1999

“We demand the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes: human beings, chimpanzees, and orangutans,” declared the Great Ape Project, an animal rights group whose U.S. headquarters is listed as a post office box in Portland, Oregon.

“Unlike some oppressed [human] groups that have achieved equality,” the group’s statement continued, “chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans are unable to fight for themselves.”

The Great Ape Project is part of a growing movement whose members see little if any difference between humans and animals. “At present,” the organization’s publication, The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity, states, “only members of the species Homo Sapiens are regarded as members of the community of equals.”

The group is backing an “Animal Welfare” bill in New Zealand that it hopes to use as a precedent for a lawsuit on behalf of apes in the U.S. The bill would be the first to grant apes legal standing in courts of law. As Rachel Nowak wrote in the British journal New Science, “If chimps in New Zealand have legal rights, it might persuade a judge in the U.S. to grant similar rights to their American cousins.”

The Great Ape Project has been joined in its effort by two U.S. groups: the Great Apes Legal Project, run by the Animal Legal Defense Fund of Petaluma, California, and the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights [to animals] in Needham, Massachusetts. Worldwide, the movement includes the Jane Goodall Institute, the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, the International Primate Protection League, and the Center for Captive Chimpanzees.

These groups claim to have targeted the great apes for “basic moral and legal protection that only humans currently enjoy” because of their close genetic relationship to human beings, as well as what they believe to be the animals’ high degree of intelligence, emotion, and ability to communicate.

“Animal rights activists compare primate research to the holocaust,” wrote Robert Stacy McCain in the Washington Times. They compare their protests on behalf of apes to the civil rights movement. They compare the legal status of chimpanzees to “the abomination of slavery.” Having taken such a position, says Hilary Shelton of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, animal rights activists have “gone over the top to the point of insulting an entire race of people.”

“In the last 10 years,” wrote Daniel T. Oliver in Animal Rights: The Inhumane Crusade, a report for the Capital Research Center, “Americans have become increasingly aware of a growing ‘animal rights’ movement. Through demonstrations, boycotts, [and] terrorism, . . . a significant minority of animal rights activists is increasingly challenging the roles of animals in our lives.”

Chimps Today, Chickens Tomorrow?

While the Great Ape Project sets itself apart from the wider animal rights movement by claiming to limit its activities to great apes only, there are strong indications that the movement to put animals on a legal par with humans will not stop there. The Project admits, “No doubt some of us, speaking individually, would want to extend the community of equals many other animals as well.”

As primatologist Frans de Waal of the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta pointed out in New Scientist, “If you argue for rights on the basis of continuity between us and the great apes, then you have to argue continuity between apes and monkeys.”

“And so on,” the magazine added, “until eventually even the humble lab rat wins human rights.”

Peter Singer, who helped found the Great Ape Project, doubts whether rights for rats is a likely outcome of the project’s efforts. Nevertheless, he predicted there will be a broadening of “the sphere of moral concern” to include other species.

In fact, U.S. groups such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have extended their animal rights efforts to a wide variety of species–in the case of PETA, even to lab rats and fish.

According to Capital Research Center’s Oliver, “the animal rights movement will continue to harm both people and animals as long as Americans fail to understand its actual agenda. While publicly professing a desire to improve the treatment of animals, the animal rights movement is in fact an anti-animal use campaign.”

Vice President and EPA Targeted

Even self-proclaimed defenders of the environment have felt the wrath of animal rights groups. PETA is condemning Vice President Al Gore, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner, and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) for their role in expanding chemical testing on animals.

In October of last year, Gore launched the high production volume (HPV) chemical testing program and ordered Browner to “fast-track” the program, which will test thousands of possibly hazardous chemicals on animals. Plans to test thousands more are in the works. EDF has been one of the major organizations lobbying and pressuring EPA to conduct the tests.

PETA claims such testing is “a waste of taxpayer money, government resources, and animals’ lives.”

Aside from the animal rights aspect of their position, in this case, PETA would appear to have some very supportable arguments. The American Council on Science and Health and other public health and science groups, for example, warn that the results of chemical testing on lab animals cannot be assumed to represent the effects these chemicals have on humans, or even animals, in the real world.