After land mines, a new challenge for Canadian compassion

by David Fraser

David Fraser is a professor of Animal Welfare in the Dept. of Animal Science and the Centre for Applied Ethics. He holds the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare at UBC.

As Canadians, we can be proud of Canada's leadership in trying to reduce suffering through the international ban on land mines. For our next assignment, let us be at the forefront of a movement to end another form of suffering that countries around the world seem powerless to combat.

The chimpanzee is our closest biological relative, but only recently has science shown how close the relationship really is. New genetic techniques show that chimpanzees share 98.4 per cent of our DNA. This makes the chimpanzee and the human as closely related as, for example, the zebra and the horse, or the fox and the dog.

Studies of behaviour also reveal remarkable parallels between the two species. Like us, chimpanzees have a childhood lasting many years, and they form permanent attachments to their mothers. They empathize with others who are injured; they teach their young through demonstration; they plan and carry out ingenious deceptions; they have a rich system of gestural communication which makes them naturals at learning our systems of sign language. As primatologist Roger Fouts puts it, the chimpanzee is a "highly intelligent, co-operative, and violent primate who nurtures family bonds, adopts orphans, mourns the death of mothers, practises self-medication, struggles for power, and wages war." Sound familiar?

In terms of intellect, there is an obvious gulf between humans and chimpanzees. However, this mainly appears to involve the special human capability to use spoken and written language to string together long sequences of thoughts. This capacity allows us to express abstract ideas and to invent complex technologies. But apart from this difference, humans and chimpanzees are now thought to be very similar in their cognitive processes. In a recent review of scientific evidence of cognition and self-awareness in animals, two American psychologists concluded that humans and the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans) stand apart from all other species that have been studied, whereas the difference between ourselves and the great apes is largely quantitative.

The obvious conclusion from this evidence is that chimpanzees are capable of suffering very much as humans would suffer when they are captured, imprisoned, or when family members are taken from them. Scientists who study the welfare of animals disagree on many issues, but no one today seriously argues that chimpanzee suffering and human suffering are substantially different.

What are the implications of our new understanding of chimpanzees? First, we need to focus international pressure and assistance on the destruction of chimpanzees killed for meat, body parts, or to capture their infants for sale. We should treat these deaths with the seriousness we attach to murder and genocide rather than poaching. Next, in any cases where it is proposed to use chimpanzees in research or entertainment, we should apply the same degree of scruples as we would if these actions were done to human beings.

But to begin the process, we need to take a small but original step: we need to revise our legal system so that chimpanzees, and probably other great apes, are accorded appropriate status under the law. The legal system recognizes living beings as either persons or property. Chimpanzees need a category of their own to recognize their fundamental similarity to humans, while still acknowledging that they stand outside human cultural institutions.

To bring the law into line with our scientific understanding of chimpanzees will require careful thought, legal innovation, and political will. But by resolving the issue in Canada, where chimpanzees are few in number and where vested interests are unlikely to derail the process, we could develop a legal formula that would serve as a model for the rest of the world.