What’s Missing From the Chimp Rights Case: Chimp “Testimony”

22 04 2015

A new ruling by a judge in the New York Supreme Court has opened the way for legal arguments about whether chimpanzees should have “legal personhood.” To be clear, legal personhood doesn’t mean that chimps would be voting or having coffee at the local Starbuck’s, but that they would have the right to a fulfilling life in a humane environment, just as do people. (See this essay by Natalie Prosin for an excellent discussion of the issue.)

Nonhuman Rights Project logoAnd the ruling only ordered a hearing “to show cause,” not that the court was addressing the issue of whether the chimps had a right to a writ of habeas corpus.

The case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project will be argued on both legal and scientific grounds. But I’m sure the hearing will not include “testimony” from the very creatures at the center of the controversy.

Obviously, I do not mean testimony in the sense of a chimp taking the stand, swearing on the Bible, and giving evidence. Rather, I believe that the case could be greatly informed by chimpanzees’ own spontaneous behavior—first-hand observations that go to the very heart of the case for legal personhood. I would argue that such behavior constitutes “testimony,” in that it portrays truths regarding chimpanzees that should be relevant in a court of law.

As examples, I offer my observations of chimp behavior during research for my novel Solomon’s Freedom, a fictional account of a court case seeking legal personhood for a chimpanzee. (Note: Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, advised on the book.)

To research the novel, my wife Joni and I spent several weeks in The Ohio State University Chimpanzee Center, watching the chimps involved in numerical cognition research by psychologist Sally Boysen.

Negotiating a paycheck

In a typical research session, a chimp would take his (or her) place on a platform on the other side of a Plexiglas boysen5window from Sally or another researcher. In front of the chimp would be a touch screen, and Sally would present number problems requiring the chimp to pick the right answer by touching the screen. For a correct answer, the chimp would get a candy that Sally inserted through a small hole in the window.

Working for a reward is not unusual in such studies. But what I thought was most telling was the “negotiation” that followed the research session.

At the end of the session would come a “payday,” in which Sally would take a paper bag over to a cabinet in sight of the chimp and proceed to put more goodies into the bag for the chimp. But the chimp was no chump. Sally would drop a few treats into the bag, and if the chimp didn’t think the pay was sufficient, he would give a decided negative shake of the head. So, Sally would add a few more goodies. Only when the chimp decided the “pay” was sufficient would he deem it acceptable with a nod of the head.

Browsing a magazine

Then there was the “magazine incident.” One day, I was standing near one of the chimps’ outdoor cages, and he emerged carrying a magazine. He proceeded to lie on his back, prop up one foot on his knee and leaf through the magazine, uttering appreciative grunts. Was he actually looking at a magazine, or only mimicking something he’d seen humans do?

Sally said that chimps did, indeed, like to look at the pictures in magazines, and did seem to recognize them as images of real objects.

In fact, Sally’s experiments demonstrated more rigorously that chimps can grasp abstractions. In one study, the researchers hid a toy Coke can in a model of the chimps’ playroom. They then released the chimp into the real playroom, and the chimp was, in many cases, able to immediately retrieve the Coke from its hiding place.

While most portrayals of chimps show them as violently screaming or passively munching food or lounging, we did see instances of the same kind of curiosity that humans display.

For example, one day Joni was planting flowers outside one of the outdoor cages, when a chimp approached, sat down and proceeded to quietly watch her at her work. She explained to the chimp what she was doing, and the chimp would periodically amble off and return to resume watching. After a while, Joni became intent on her gardening, no longer talking to the chimp. The chimp went away and shortly returned.

He then launched a mouthful of water across a distance of several feet into Joni’s face. Whether it was a demand for attention, a joke, or an aggressive act, it was clearly a strategic act of communication by a deliberative creature.

Getting darted

However, perhaps the most telling bit of “testimony” about chimp behavior relevant to legal personhood was the episode I witnessed of the chimp Bobby being tranquilized. Bobby had developed a cough, and the researchers wanted to make sure it wasn’t pneumonia. So, he had to be anesthetized with a tranquilizer dart gun, to be given a chest x-ray and health exam.

When Sally approached the cages with the dart gun, an enormous uproar rose among the chimps. According to Sally, it was the standard panicked response, because the chimps knew that one of them was about to be darted.

She approached a nervous Bobby and said, “Now, I’m going to have to dart you, so show me your rump.” It was important for Bobby to present his rump, so the dart would safely hit a fleshy part of his body.

Bobby complied, turning his rump toward Sally. She fired. The dart bounced off Bobby’s thick hide.

“Bring me the dart,” she instructed.

Bobby brought her the dart and once again turned his rump to her. She reloaded and fired again. This dart embedded itself into Bobby’s thigh.

“Now pull out the dart and bring it to me,” Sally instructed. Bobby obeyed.

“Now you’re going to go to sleep, so lay down,” she said. This command was important so that Bobby wouldn’t climb to a place where falling would injure him, Bobby laid down and was soon unconscious.

Such “testimony” revealing such evocative behaviors will not likely find its way into court proceedings to decide whether chimpanzees deserve legal personhood.

But it should.

(Notes: See this list of resources for further background on chimpanzee research and the case for legal personhood. Dr. Boysen’s laboratory was closed by the university in 2006.)

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