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On Barbara Ehrenreich and Chimpanzees

This is Hiasl (pronounced HEE-zul), a 26-year old chimp in living in Vienna who was captured as a baby in Sierra Leone in 1982, smuggled in a crate to Austria, and used in experiments at a pharmaceutical research lab for a year. He then made it to a sanctuary, where he lived for the subsequent 25 years with another chimp, Rosi.

The sanctuary went bankrupt, but activists and other donors have offered to fund the food and vet bills for the two chimps, which comes to about $6,800.

The problem is that only persons (not to say human beings, but a being defined, by law, as a person) can receive personal donations. A legal battle has ensued to make Hiasl, for legal purposes, a person entitled to basic legal rights.

"We mean the right to life, the right to not be tortured, the right to freedom under certain conditions," said Eberhart Theuer, a lawyer for the Association Against Animal Factories, a Vienna animal rights group.

If Hiasl "wins," he would be appointed a guardian.

The interesting thing about this, to me, is that though property rights are indeed at the heart of animal rights, and the lack of personhood for animals, legally, is what allows humans to use them both institutionally and individually, in our homes (as pets), this case sends a mixed message. It’s mixed because, for instance, Jane Goodall is involved in the case as an expert witness. In addition, the Theuer said:

"When you see Hiasl, he really comes across as a person . . . . He has a real personality. It strikes you immediately: This is an individual. You just have to look him in the eye to see that."

Though personhood isn’t SUPPOSED TO BE about having the personality of a human person, much of what is going on here is happening because chimps are so much like us; they’re so close to being human persons. In other words, if Hiasl were a cat, we wouldn’t be having this debate. But cats have the same capacity for pleasure and pain, and the same interest in not being owned by anyone (and certainly not being tortured by anyone)–and that’s the core issue.

Speaking for the animal rights group, in the quote above, Theuer does indeed make the animal rights argument. But then he tosses it away by emphasizing how human-like Hiasl is.

I’ve got nothing against Hiasl, and I hope he is victorious. And I hope that if that occurs, it leads to a change in legal status for other nonhuman animals. But as long as we concentrate on their personalities, and value them according to how much they’re like us rather than valuing them for who they are, we’ll be missing the point. The point is justice–not reward for the species most like us.

Barbara Ehrenreich, whom I read and adored in graduate school at the City University of New York (Queens College, and no, I didn’t know Jerry Seinfeld), commented on the Hiasl situation in The Nation last week, basically making a joke of the entire thing. I haven’t been so disappointed in a long time. I wrote a bletter in response to her commentary, (as did Christopher Barden of California, whose letter is awesome), and I suggest you do the same. (And yes, I’m aware that mine has a typo. Ever since I turned 40, I’ve become typo-woman, and you can’t preview your comment so proof. Twice.)

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