Monkey Business

Sarah Saville

What’s the difference between an ape and a monkey? In high school I would have answered: a tail. In college I would have answered: somewhere between 3%–6% genetic differences. In law school I will answer: the amount of legal protections available to the animals.

Zoologically, great apes include bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. As defined by proposed legislation, great apes include the gibbons of Family Hylobatidae, also known as the lesser apes. The European Union ended research on captive great apes last year. Today, there are currently several proposed measures to extend protections to captive apes in the United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services is currently reviewing whether or not to list all chimpanzees as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Wild chimpanzees are currently listed as endangered, but captive chimpanzees are only listed as threatened. The current “split listing” permits the use of chimpanzees in research and to be kept as pets. In April, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett introduced the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011. If passed, the Act will retire all federally owned apes used in research and for breeding.  

Monkeys belong to different families within the Primate Order. Numerous behavioral studies have been conducted on monkeys. Some of those results, including emotional capacities and language abilities, were highlighted by ABC comparing humans to baboons. In a more recent study published in January, scientists found that baboons have closer social relationships with friends than family. Most recently, another study published in the September issue of Psychological Sciences concluded that baboons are capable of reasoning through analogies—an ability previously thought to be uniquely human, or at least restricted to great apes.

There are approximately 1,000 apes in research labs in the United States and approximately 112,000 monkeys. One of the express findings of the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act is that “great apes are highly intelligent and social animals.” Some welfare and ape liberation groups rely on apes’ cognitive abilities to justify why apes deserve more protections than other primates. In light of the many studies on monkeys’ psychological capacities, I have to wonder if the intelligence argument can still logically be used to support protecting apes and not other simians.

Some activists also claim that apes deserve special protections or rights because they are genetically closer to us than other animals. Scientific studies show that humans share between 95%–98% of our DNA with chimpanzees and around 94%–97% of our DNA with other apes. We share 93% of our DNA with monkeys. Do a tail and an additional few percent of unshared DNA justify differing legal treatment of the two? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, then we have to ask ourselves why we are willing to leave over 100,000 monkeys in conditions from which we seek to free apes.

3 Responses

  1. Gary Francione has written about the “similar minds” theory — the theory that the closer a nonhuman’s mind is to ours, the more protections they deserve. The problems with using human like cognitive abilities as way to evaluate who deserves rights are many. First and foremost, since humans are always doing the “intelligence” testing, nonhumans are *never* going to measure up, especially in cases where exploiting them provides economic benefit. Just check out all of the research on primates done in the EU recently for their 2010 directive on animal testing. The research (pages and pages of it) shows that many primates are intelligent, emotional, sensitive, “human-like” yadda yadda, but the directive stops short of banning all testing. So one has to ask — what do they have to do to deserve being treated as persons? Or even left alone?

    Second, quite simply, humans don’t have any good means of assessing other creatures’ intelligence. It was recently discovered that the famed mirror test is flawed and not a reliable indicator of self-awareness — some animals showed self awareness in other ways while they completely flunked the mirror test.

    Third, given that research is showing “intelligence” in more and more different kinds of animals (birds, reptiles, fish) are we going to rewrite laws every time someone proves another animal is too intelligent to be researched on or eaten? (uh, probably not, given we don’t even do that for the ones most like us, so I guess we’re safe there.)

    Anyway, I get tired of the same old “is this animal too intelligent for us to use?” human fake ethical quandary. (I’m not saying that about your article, I think you struck exactly the right notes). I propose a new ethical yardstick called “benefit of the doubt”. If an animal is sentient, give her the benefit of the doubt and stop exploiting her. Stop looking for mirrors and start appreciating difference.

    As I noted, your article asks the right questions. And those are the ones we should be asking about more than just primates!

  2. Humans did not create the universe. Humans did not create the sun. Humans did not create the earth nor any mineral, vegetable or nonhuman animal on it. In fact, humans do not even have the ability or intelligence to create other humans. They may believe they have this power, but they are wrong.

    Similarly, humans can assert all they want that they are more sapient
    or more sentient or more valuable or more deserving of autonomy and freedom than are their fellow inhabitants on earth. But they are wrong.

    Humans work against their own best interests when they claim that they are superior to nonhumans and thus have the prerogative to exploit these so-called lesser beings.

    Their smugness not only limits their own intelligence, but it precludes them from experiencing the joy and freedom that come from interacting respectfully, on an equal footing, with all creatures.

    Sarah, your last sentence is right on the mark. And everything Lorien writes is spot-on. You both shine with the rare quality of humility, a quality which is foreign to speciesists.

    Humility’s opposite, pride, would have humans believe that we have the power to grant or not grant legal rights to great apes and/or to monkeys and/or to animals besides simians. But it is that very pride that has held us in the grip of limited thinking, and it is that very pride that will, if retained, be our downfall.

    Christ Jesus, who, if one trusts the accounts of the four gospel writers, mastered every limitation, including death, had this to say about pride: “For everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11, American Standard Version).

  3. that monkey was so sweet and I loved all the other animals to me my sister and my friend had a look at your pictures we thought they were so sweet

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