Tommy the ape may be the first animal legally granted personhood, and consequently relieved of the caged isolation imposed on him by his owners. It raises an important question about animal rights, and how we value other sentient creatures.
In first reading about Tommy, I concluded that we humans need to ramp up our responsible actions toward apes rather than bestowing rights of personhood upon apes. This perspective is beautifullyarticulated by the philosopher Lori Gruen. And the questions tumble one upon the other when we consider what might happen if Tommy and other apes were to become persons in the eyes of the law. How exactly would they participate in the determination of their own lives? Yes, they are smart creatures, but they are relentlessly non-verbal. Will our observation of their behaviors be enough for us to know what they want? What if they want what we can’t give them (a great deal of space to roam, let’s say) or isn’t good for them (unhealthy but delicious sugary foods)? How would we begin to think about the interrelationship of apes’ rights and responsibilities? What could it even mean for apes to have responsibilities to society?
But I began to wonder, are these questions of mine the most appropriate ones? After all, we protect the rights of many humans who contribute to society simply through their own valued existence: babies, the profoundly disabled, elderly people with dementia. It’s well past time to create new ways of relating to other creatures who are sentient without language.
Having gotten this far in my thinking, I asked Wise to clarify for me how he approaches the question of Tommy’s ability for self-determination. Wise told me:
At the root of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s arguments that a chimpanzee is a legal person possessed of the right to body liberty protected by a common law writ of habeas corpus is [the view that] they are autonomous and self-determining beings. One of our experts defined autonomous behavior as ‘behavior that reflects a choice and is not based on reflexes, innate behaviors or any conventional categories of learning … [It] implies that the individual is directing the behavior based on some non-observable internal cognitive process.’ Because chimpanzees are autonomous, self-determining and social beings, it is unlikely that a mentally healthy chimpanzee would choose a life of forced solitary confinement in an indoor cage in a Northern clime over a life lived with dozens of other chimpanzees, outdoors, in a Southern clime. As human beings who are mentally unable to make complex decisions because they are too young or otherwise mentally incompetent have the right to make simpler decisions about their lives, so chimpanzees should have the right to make those decisions about their lives about which they are capable.
I find this definition of self-determination, which recognizes the reality of different levels of capability across species, and its application to Tommy’s case, to be persuasive. In the end, I think it’s time now to be bold, to throw open our imagination and envision a different future for chimpanzees like Tommy. This is what visionaries like Wise encourage us to do: to stand apart from the mainstream and pose new solutions. If those solutions come with a set of challenging questions attached, let’s open a conversation about them, and meet them head on.