20 year old Cecilia is famous. So much so, she will surely go down in history. Marcelino, her ‘boy next door’ at Sorocaba Great Apes Sanctuary in Brazil, is turning on all his charm for his sweet neighbour. He thinks she’s pretty special but he, like Cecilia herself, has no idea just how special.
Last November (2016) chimp Cecilia became the first animal ever to have been adjudged a nonhuman person in a court of law.
The judgement by the court in Mendoza Argentina granting Cecilia habeas corpus meant release, finally, from the cramped zoo she’d been confined in her entire life. Up until that memorable day it was all she had ever known, a miserable life made even more wretched by the deaths of her lifelong friends and companions, Charly and Xuxa. Can you imagine it. Cecilia was left heartbroken and alone.
It’s little wonder then, even after four months at Sorocaba she is still depressed. It takes more than a few short months of freedom and loving care to obliterate the emotional scars of 20 years imprisonment.
Cecilia, though special in terms of legal history, is just one of the many traumatised chimps, trafficked and mistreated in circuses and zoos before finding a safe haven at Sorocaba. “It is very important to talk to them so they don’t feel lonely,” says Merivan Miranda, one of the 30 carers. “So that they know there is someone there who understands them.”
When she first arrived, Cecilia “used to spend all her time lying down and did not interact with anyone,” says sanctuary vet Camila Gentille. Before handsome Marcelino moved in as her neighbour, the sanctuary staff had already tried a bit of matchmaking with Billy, but Billy was “too impulsive” for sad Cecilia.
But she is slowly getting better. And now, when Marcelino calls to her, she is starting to show him some interest, and even joining in the conversation.
Pedro Ynterian, director of the sanctuary, is certain that with time Cecilia will overcome her depression.“That is what she is seeking to do, so that she can partner with someone, and stop living alone.
“And she will manage to do it.”
Cecilia – now a person, no longer property.
Tommy, Kiko, Hercules & Leo
You may already know these guys as the chimp clients of the altogether awesome lawyer Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project. Unlike Cecilia though, their right to be designated nonhuman persons under the law has been denied by a succession of presiding judges in New York courts.
Woeful as this is for the 4 chimps – and all the others for whom the precedent would be set – Steven though disappointed is undaunted. He remains utterly convinced that advocacy for legal personhood and not advocacy for welfare improvements is the way forward for the animals.
Here is the upbeat opening of his keynote speech at the recent Animal Rights National Conference 2017:-
“It’s the beginning of the end of the age of animal welfare and animal protection and the end of the beginning of the age of civil rights, true legal rights, for nonhuman animals.
“It is the beginning of the end of activists having to beg and plead and cajole other human beings in an effort to get them to do the right thing for nonhuman animals, to get them to try to respect the fundamental interests of nonhuman animals, whose interests are presently invisible in courtrooms, invisible to civil law. And it’s the end of the beginning of the struggle for personhood and the civil rights of nonhuman animals for whom we demand those fundamental legal rights to which justice and equity and scientific fact entitle them.”
Steven continues (my paraphrasing):
There have been laws to protect animals’ welfare in America since the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties which stated, “(n)o man shall exercise any Tirranny or crueltie toward any bruite Creatures which are usuallie kept for man’s use.” But to what extent, if at all, things have improved for animals “usuallie kept for man’s use” in the last 376 years is open to dispute. In spite of animal welfare laws working their way on to statute books in most countries and states, they remain, in Steven’s words, “pathetically ineffective”)
And there are other problems with pushing for improvements in animal welfare. One is that those who make money from them, the meat companies, the farms, the labs, the circuses, the zoos, the puppy mills can always, and often do, choose to ignore our advocacy on the animals’ behalf.
Another is that even if the owners of the animal ‘property’, or their political representatives do yield to public concerns, what has been conceded can as easily be revoked. Take the hard won successes for animals former President Obama signed into federal law. Along comes Trump – no friend of animals he, nor indeed of anything else much except money – and with one stroke of the pen, he can strike them out. Indeed, some are already consigned to the presidential trashcan, and more look like heading that way.
High welfare or low, protected or not, the animals still have “the problem of being a thing versus being a person.”
“For years I have talked about a great legal wall that exists, and has existed, for 2000 years between things and persons. On the ‘thing’ side of the wall, today, in 2017, are all the nonhuman animals of the world. You have to understand what a legal thing is.
“A legal thing is an entity that lacks the capacity for any kind of a legal right. It lacks inherent value. It only has instrumental value for legal persons.
“It is a slave to the master. A legal person is a master to the slave. All of us here are legal persons. We are the owners of things, whether that thing is an elephant or this podium.”
But you don’t have to be a human being to be a legal ‘person’. A corporation can be a person. In india a mosque, a Hindu idol, the Sikh holy books are all legal persons. In New Zealand a river and a national park are both persons under that country’s law.
Let’s not forget Cecilia. And in July this year the Supreme Court in Colombia declared a bear a person and issued a writ of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus gives the right to bodily liberty and can only be granted to a legal person.
Today the NhRP is working with lawyers in 13 countries on 4 continents “to help them win personhood for as many nonhuman animals in as many countries as we possibly can.”
In the USA the NhRP will shortly be filing a lawsuit for elephants, and moving against the captivity of orcas at SeaWorld San Diego.
Steven finds a parallel between US courts denying his nonhuman clients personhood, and personhood being denied in the past to black and Native Americans, and women – unthinkable as that is to us now.
“They were wrong then. They are wrong now”
“With respect to the judges who are ruling that way now, at some point they, or their children, or their grandchildren are going to be embarrassed by the fact that they said such things in cases involving such extraordinary beings as chimpanzees or orcas or elephants.”
I am certain Steven is right. But much as I wish for it, I cannot see how this is going to help all the myriads of other animals in the world. Steven and his team have based the arguments they bring to court on the basis of the autonomy of their (at present captive) clients. The NhRP’s plaintiffs are “members of species who have been scientifically proven to be self-aware and autonomous: currently, great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales.” In their natural state, in the wild, a chimp, an elephant, a dolphin and an orca are all animals, it is universally agreed, who make their own decisions and determine their own lives. That autonomy NhRP says, is more than sufficient for them to be deemed persons. (Remember, you have to be a person to have the right to bodily liberty)
But what of other wildlife – pigeons, rats, frogs, fleas? Aren’t they autonomous too? Don’t they have a right to bodily liberty? But what judge is going to concede their personhood?
And what of the billions and billions of farmed animals? There are massive vested interests determined that cows, pigs, hens and sheep should never be considered autonomous and entitled to legal rights as persons.
Take this, for example, from the Animal Agriculture Alliance‘s home page: “Radical activist organizations are leading the fight to grant animals the same legal rights as humans and eliminate the consumption of food and all other products derived from animals. The ideology of the animal rights movement- that animals are not ours to own, enjoy, or use in any way- is a direct assault on farmers and pet owners.”
In June last year Canadian MPs voted down Nathaniel Erskine-Smith’s Bill C-246 — the Modernizing Animal Protections Act. Mr Erskine-Smith was not proposing animals should be designated persons in law. Nevertheless, Tory MP Robert Sopuck voiced the strong concerns of many about the idea of moving animals out of the property section of the Criminal Code and placing them into the public morals section. He said such a step would have “drastic implications” for farmers, hunters, trappers, anglers, and medical researchers. Clearly many of his fellow MPs agreed. The bill was defeated 198 to 84.
How will these nonhuman animals ever cross that wall that Steven talks about from property to personhood? Humans, especially those who exploit nonhuman animals for profit, will never be willing to give up the power bestowed on them by ownership. And unfortunately, it’s humans who make the laws that decide on the status of animals, and humans who enforce them.
“The Nonhuman Rights Project now, and we hope others in the future, are no longer going to ask. We are going to demand the rights that nonhuman animals are entitled to. The day of animal welfare and animal protection is passing and will soon be over.”
Fighting talk Steven, fighting talk. I so wish it could be true.
Please sign the Declaration of Animal Rights
Watch “Unlocking the Cage” – Full movie
Now is the Time for Pragmatic Vegan Advocacy
A Promising Way Forward for Animal Rights?
Persons not Property – Could the Tide be Turning?
Will Today be the Day Chimpanzees Become Legal Persons?
10 thoughts on “Cecilia Blazes the Trail – Or Does She?”
Good news for Cecilia! Her declaration of personhood will give her a better future, one she deserves.
It has given Steven Wise hope, as he notes: “Here is the beginning of the end of the age of animal welfare and animal protection and the end of the beginning of the age of civil rights, true legal rights, for nonhuman animals.”
Wise also notes that several centuries have passed since the first animal welfare act of the New World in 1641. Since then animal activists have fought long and hard for laws made ineffective by loopholes, plus lack both of will and funding for enforcement.
Gaining legal personhood for the great apes, elephants, and cetaceans should not be that difficult. Unlike the unfortunate farm animals, exploitation of apes, elephants, and cetaceans is not so pervasive or so lucrative. The animals are endangered or threatened; their numbers are fewer. Neither ape bushmeat nor whales are eaten widely throughout the world. The number of those collecting ivory is not large. The animals themselves are iconic and remarkable in intelligence. What could be holding them back and why have they not already been declared as legal persons?
One reason is that the wall of speciesism is built high and wide with willful ignorance, superstition, greed, and arrogance. Still, the information needed to “tear down that wall” started accumulating three hundred years ago when the close relationship between human beings and the great apes was noted. But the wall remains.
For example, in the 18th century taxonomist Carl Linnaeus ranked human beings with all the other primates in his Systema naturae, including them among the Anthropomorpha (later changed to Primates). He was first to suggest such an idea, but it was followed by outrage from the other members of the scientific community who were determined to preserve human “dignity” by demanding a separate classification for humans—in other words, keeping the wall between humans and animals insurmountable. At the time, the main argument was that human beings were “imago Dei,” made in the image of God. People were separate and superior, and they were given dominion over all the other inferior beings of Creation.
Unfortunately, there were other religious issues involved. In the iconography of witchcraft, one of Satan’s representations, the simia figura diaboli, was a man/monkey hybrid. Linnaeus’ placing human beings and primates in the same taxon recalled that unfortunate human/monkey/evil image.
The issue was raised again in the mid-19th century by Thomas Henry Huxley (AKA Darwin’s Bulldog). In 1863 Huxley argued that the great apes of Africa belonged in the Hominidae with Homo sapiens. The Family taxon Hominidae brings the relationship of human beings and the great apes even closer.
Darwin himself had worried about that relationship even earlier, fearful of how it would undermine traditional social and religious beliefs. In one notebook he pondered “The Devil under the form of baboon is our Grandfather,” sounding like a reference to the simia figura diaboli. Later he referred to his own evolutionary view of nature as that of a “Devil’s Chaplain” and worried both about his own reputation and what his work would do to undermine the dignity of Man.
The attention to the close relationship between apes and humans continues at the current time. Smithsonian Mammal Species of the World still lists human beings (Homo) in the same family (Hominidae) as the gorilla (Gorilla), chimpanzees and bonobos (Pan) and orangutans (Pongo). However, some have suggested, on the basis of genetics, that chimpanzees should belong in the Genus Homo with human beings (although experts admit the emotionally charged nature of the change would encounter resistance).
We should hope that by now humans would have moved beyond their old superstitions and arrogance to accept the great apes into the family and even the genus. We have not.
Undercurrents of this issue surfaced with Harambe, the gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo who was murdered when a child propelled himself into Harambe’s enclosure, and the zoo feared the child might be injured or killed.
Comments in newspapers and Internet articles revealed that many people were horrified at Harambe’s fate. Because of human carelessness and irresponsibility, a magnificent silverback gorilla, member of an endangered species, was not even safe in a zoo. His death was made sadder by the fact that zoo staff had celebrated his birthday the day before they shot him.
However the belief in humanity as imago Dei is obviously still alive, as revealed in comments sections of newspapers and Internet postings. While many people mourned his death, others reminded them that the only thing that mattered was the saving of a human being, who was made in God’s image. An animal’s death was not important.
There were comments criticizing people for caring about a “freakin’ monkey” at a time when fetuses were being aborted. One newspaper header read, “It’s a gorilla, get over it.”
In my many comments deploring the killing, I upset a number of people. Here is one comment I got back because I referred to Harambe as “he” instead of “it”:
“Marcia, you are an animal? Hmmm. Please don’t say “us” cause I’m Created in the Image of GOD, and HE certainly is no animal. In fact, GOD subjected all animals to my dominion.”
Similar opinions continued:
“I am not an ape at all. I am sorry if you believe yourself to be.”
“Humans are children of God, of a divine nature and with a divine destiny. Satan will use any means possible to convince us otherwise.
“Spiritually, humans have rational and eternal souls. Animals do not. Christ came and died for the salvation of man, not the salvation of cockroaches. And he was incarnate as a human, not a squirrel. This alone makes a human’s worth eternally greater than that of beast.”
One headline blared, “One Human Is More Important Than A Million Gorillas. And We All Know It.” The story maintained that “If a human is infinitely superior to one ape, he is infinitely superior to a thousand.”
Even a scientist, Cadell Last, evolutionary anthropologist, wants a taxonomic distinction between Homo and Gorilla, Pan, and Pongo: “But perhaps more importantly, splitting humans from the great apes allows us to reconceptualize our own humanity. We are not the great apes; we are humans.”
The rhetoric between the pro-Harambe group and the human supremacy group got heated and hyperbolic. One journalist arguing for human superiority said the job of those who recognized the “fundamental truths” of the sacredness of human life was “to drag these people kicking and screaming back to the rabbit hole and throw them into it, against their will if necessary.” Those angry about Harambe’s death and that author’s writing said he and his children should be run over by a bus.
So the question can justifiably be raised if we have not moved beyond the social environment of Carl Linnaeus and Charles Darwin. Is this a reason we have not been able to give apes, elephants, and cetaceans personhood?
The rhetoric surrounding Harambe’s violent death suggests that religious conservatives, especially, are outraged by any comparison between human beings and other animals. Personhood for the great apes would not harm human beings; it would help a limited number of animals. But the very idea is an offense to an article of faith about uniqueness of human nature and the cultural tradition of speciesism. Those committed to such beliefs want the wall to remain in place. Any breach is a threat. When discussing moving chimps into the genus Homo, Andrew Rambaut, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, noted: “It would become more a political decision than anything else.”
Sad that human beings promote the slaughter of billions of living creatures because they like cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets. Even sadder is that we may be willing to withhold help and personhood from others in order to maintain the myth of our superiority.
The Great (Ape) Taxonomy Debate, Scientific American, Cadell Last (February 13, 2013)
While You Were Crying Over a Dead Ape, 125,000 Babies Were Just …
One Human Is More Important Than A Million Gorillas. And We All …
The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity, Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer (St. Martin’s Griffin edition, 1996)
Great Apes and Humans: The Ethics of Coexistence, Beck, Stoinski, et al. (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).
Chimps Belong in Human Branch of Family Tree, Study Says: John Pickrell (National Geographic News, May 20, 2003).
The Guardian: Closer to Man than Ape (January 24, 2006)
Thank you so much. That is very interesting. I did not know anything about the taxonomic history. This is indeed a very high wall. It all just makes me want to cry, especially some of those comments about Harambe. Those people claiming God and Jesus on their side of the argument haven’t read their Bibles very carefully. Maybe they should take St Francis as their exemplar instead. His namesake Pope Francis calls destruction of nature a modern sin
I hope his influence can break down some of this entrenched God-has-given-us-dominion biigotry. Some quotes from Pope Francis:
“May the relationship between man and nature not be driven by greed, to manipulate and exploit, but may the divine harmony between beings and creation be conserved in the logic of respect and care.”
and this “Every creature, particularly a living creature, has intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures.”
“If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.”
I don’t believe that Pope Francis’s statements will have much effect on the treatment of animals.
If he truly believed that our relationship with animals and the earth needed to improve, he would follow his general statements with some kind of policy or change of dogma. He would need to condemn as sinful abuse of animals. If he believes factory farms are wrong, then he needs to say owning a factory farm is sinful, that working in a factory farm or slaughter house is sinful, that eating meat and creating a demand for the products of animal suffering and death is sinful.
I spent 14 years in Catholic schools. I never heard a sermon or had a discussion in a catechism class about cruelty to animals. I do remember that in fall, sermons would warn hunters that if they skipped mass to get an early start in the mountains, they would be committing a moral sin. That meant that a hunting accident would result in an eternity in hell. There was no mention of the suffering or deaths of the deer or elk.
I wrote letters to bishops and Catholic journals. I made appointment with members of the clergy to express my disappointment with the Church for omitting animals from moral consideration. I could not even get anyone to say bullfighting was sinful. It was, they said, a matter of culture. I could remind them that infanticide was allowed in some cultures but was now condemned. Of course, they said, but babies are human beings! My attempts failed.
However, even if Pope Francis did declare animal abuse as immoral, he would have a backlash from the cardinals and bishops. (In fact, some clergy in Africa are saying that people should be allowed to go back to animal sacrifice!) They know if people were told they had to give up steaks and hunting and rodeos and other forms of cruelty, they would give up the Church first.
The clergy may hide behind the imago Dei, human beings made in the image of God, but they fail to ask themselves what, in the face of so much horrendous human meanness, that God must look like.
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You’ve had much more first hand experience than I have. Yes, if we are made in the image of God, God is most definitely not Love. And if there is heaven and hell, the animals are in hell already. I would like to believe there is an afterlife where the animals will find themselves in a heaven perfectly suited to their wellbeing and happiness, and that the humans who have so abused them will go to the other place. Wishful thinking? Perhaps it’s naive to cling to hope in the face of so much horror.
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