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In the front line of animal liberation



In ten years’ time our next of kin, the great apes, will have disappeared from the wild. This is a crisis situation and one that requires not just steps but a giant leap across the "species barrier", behind which humans oppress billions of animals each day with impunity: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans must be given the legal and moral status of "non-human individuals" in order to protect their basic rights.

The term "great apes" covers humans (Homo sapiens), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), bonobos (Pan paniscus), gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) and orang-utans (Pongo pigmaeus). We each share a common ancestor, many of whose chromosomes have survived millions of years with no apparent change. Whether we like it or not, humans are also great apes. And yet we are destroying the same creatures with whom we share 97% to 99% of our genetic signature, as though the remaining tiny percentage gave us the right to deliberately and with impunity commit what may become one of the worst crimes of the twenty-first century. A crime against a people’s very identity. A crime against the living heritage of our planet. A crime against knowledge of our origins. Greater understanding of this history could give greater meaning to our ultimate goal, which is surely not total domination of all living things. We must change our ways. We can still choose whether or not we wish to seal the tragic fate of our nearest cousins. We can still ensure that the twenty-first century does not go down in history as the century when human great apes exterminated non-human great apes.

A moral disaster

Non-human great apes are classified as endangered species. Many individuals and organisations across the world are working to save, protect and return to the wild chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas in Africa, orang-utans in Indonesia. Despite this, a history of bloodshed continues to spread sadness among families of great apes. Over and over again, members of these families find themselves caught up in the infernal cycle that Man has sustained for centuries and recreates day after day across the globe. This cycle transforms living beings, animals that were born free, into living or dead objects for Man to exploit at will, often until the ultimate and irreversible stage of extinction. This is the case of great apes. They are objects for consumption, sold as bushmeat on markets throughout Africa. They are objects for entertainment, domesticated, exhibited, held captive for life in circuses and zoos. They are objects for self-indulgence, orphans sold as pets who, if they survive, may live out their life in chains. They are objects for experimentation, most often ending their days in isolation in laboratory cages. And to add to this we exterminate them by destroying their habitat. Quite clearly non-human great apes are the living (for the moment) symbol of the distress of the entire animal world. May our commitment to saving them make them the living symbol of all animals’ liberation.

Man, the most fearsome predator of all

"To watch the great apes slowly die is to observe what our future will be on a planet that is becoming inhospitable as it slowly chokes." (Biruté Galdikas, Reflections of Eden). The bodies of entire families of great apes lie scattered across the land of Africa, killed, mutilated and dismembered by Man’s inauspicious hand. Africa, the mythical continent where millions of years ago the human great ape appeared alongside its non-human brothers. For humans are also great apes. Why does Man threaten his nearest relation? Does he feel threatened himself? Or does he fear for his arbitrary place at the centre of the natural world? As increasingly precise knowledge of great apes has emerged since the 1960s, the barrier between Man and animal, between culture and nature, becomes less and less justifiable. We believed the humanisation process would end when Man had severed all links with nature to become the only "cultured being", and animals "natural beings". It is this "us and them" attitude that underlies the human predator’s overriding and destructive desire for supremacy over the animal realm.

Leakey’s three angels

The work of Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey and Biruté Galdikas, the "three angels", shook the scientific community. These women, sent into the field in the 1960s and 70s by paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey, built their science not on domination but on respect. Thankfully, other scientists have since followed their lead. Louis Leakey, who travelled throughout Africa in search of the "missing link", believed that studying the great apes in their natural environment would give a more accurate idea of how Man’s ancestors lived. He invited Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees in the Gombe river reserve. In just one year, she won the trust of chimpanzees in the wild. She rewrote scientific rules by identifying each individual with a name instead of the usual number. Jane was thus able to more closely appreciate the individual personality of the different chimpanzees with whom she built up a relationship, and trace their background. Her work shed important new light on certain convictions about humanity. Man’s distinctive characteristics were re-examined. Not only did chimpanzees build and use tools, the mothers taught their young how to use them too. Quite clearly, the chimpanzees had a culture which they passed down through the generations. The difference between "us" and "them" was getting smaller. Diane Fossey, who paid with her life to save the mountain gorillas of Virunga in Africa, and Biruté Galdikas who continues to fight to save the orang-utans of Indonesia, have significantly enriched our knowledge of great apes, and in doing so inspired greater love and respect for them.

A disconcerting truth

Numerous studies of our nearest relations, including work by leading primatologist Franz de Waal, have revealed that technique, culture, tradition, teaching, planning, cooperation, morality, altruism and reconciliation rituals are all part of the non-human great apes’ social structure. They have self-awareness, recognize themselves in a mirror, can anticipate the future, assimilate elaborate language structures, joke and even tell lies! The "us and them divide" is about to be crossed, but opposition will be proportional to the importance of the moral progress this will represent in Man’s relation to Animal. Specism is profoundly anchored in human mentalities, and powerful interests are at stake. We need the dedication and determination of all those who are able to go beyond prejudice and their own interests so that chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans are no longer treated like instruments to serve Man’s immorality, but as individuals with their own destiny. Their future is in our hands.

Terrified orphans in a devastated world

Of all the great apes, the orang-utans are the most at risk as they live only in the primary forests of Borneo and Sumatra. Over 80% of this natural habitat has been destroyed. Logging companies replace natural vegetation with marketable trees such as palm and rubber, while peasants start fires so they can then grow crops on the land. Both destroy the orang-utan’s natural habitat and primary resources. Hungry, thirsty and dehydrated, they venture near human homes where peasants beat them to death. Terrified baby orang-utans are captured and sold. Corruption, mass exploitation of the forests and poaching made easy by the "veins" cut into the heart of the forests have decimated the orang-utan population. No more than 20,000 still survive. In Indonesia, in the Amazon, in Africa the forest rings to the terrifying sound of chainsaws, bulldozers, dynamite and arms. Our ape-brothers’ blood is spilled among the sap of millennial trees from Africa or Asia that will finish in European ports (in particular Nantes) to be made into doors, windows, furniture and toilet paper, leaving behind hundreds of dead plant and animal species. We are directly responsible for the massacred great apes and their families, and for the fate of their orphaned young who are captured and sold as exotic meat or zoo attractions. Non-human ape young who are snatched from their mother and who witness her savage death are left traumatized. Like human babies they are fragile and need the loving care of a mother throughout their early years. Education also plays an essential role in acquiring adult behaviour. Few of these orphaned apes survive premature separation, ill-treatment or malnutrition. Those that do live forever in a state of shock with the flames, blood and terrifying shadow of Man forever engraved on their memory.

We all belong to Washoe’s family tree

Non-human great apes are conscious of their identity. "They think therefore they are" from the same family as humans. One of the most irrefutable proofs is that they can communicate with humans using a human language. Allen and Beatrix Gardner successfully taught sign language to a young chimpanzee they named Washoe. They communicate with Washoe, who has learned 350 different signs which she can structure into simple sentences. When shown her reflection in a mirror and asked "who’s this?"; Washoe replies "me, Washoe." Later, after Washoe went to live with Roger and Deborah Fouts, she adopted a baby chimpanzee to whom she taught the signs she herself had learned. Gorillas can also learn sign language. Francine Petterson uses signs to communicate with Koko, a lowland gorilla. Koko understands 500 different signs. When shown a mirror, Koko makes faces or examines her teeth. When asked "who’s a clever gorilla?" she replies "me". When told "Koko is stupid" she answers, "no, gorilla." Chantek, an orang-utan, has also learned sign language with Lyn Miles. When he is shown a photo of a gorilla pointing to its nose, he does the same. Chantek imitates the gorilla. He is aware of his own body and can transfer this image from one context to another.

A lesson to be learned from "Old Man"

Non-human great apes can learn different elements of the human communication system. They understand many different signs, symbols and spoken English words. Not only can they reproduce sentences, they are capable of inventing their own. Quite clearly they have a gift for language and communication and are able to formulate their thoughts, emotions, feelings and needs, and refer to past and future events. Over a number of years, Jane Goodall and Franz de Waal observed chimpanzees in the semi-wild, noting examples of cooperation, planning and deliberate misleading behaviour. This clearly shows that chimpanzees are both aware of themselves and understand that other chimpanzees are aware too. They develop strong social and family ties which they observe all their life. They share, help each other, soothe conflict and show kindness towards other species. Jane Goodall tells the story of "Old Man", a chimpanzee who had been mistreated yet who saved a human friend from an attack by female chimpanzees who believed their young to be in danger. Quite clearly, the same sap flows through the five branches of the great ape family tree.

The ancestral tree is in danger

• Humans: as their population continues to grow, humans invade non-human territory and destroy natural sanctuaries such as forests and seas. • Chimpanzees: in danger of extinction. They live chiefly in rainforests, although some have successfully adapted to the savannah and wooded areas. Chimpanzees may die out in the wild within ten years. Because the chimpanzee shares 99% of its genes with humans, it is laboratories’ preferred "living test-tube". • Bonobos: in danger of extinction. Having once occupied vast expanses of equatorial Africa, bonobos are now found only in the rain and swamp forests of Congo (formerly Zaire). Bonobos are pygmy chimpanzees. According to Jared Diamond, physiologist at Los Angeles university, the third chimpanzee is Man • Gorillas: in danger of extinction. The mountain gorilla, of which just 600 remain, survives on the volcanic slopes of Virunga while lowland gorillas, of which just 30,000 remain, live in Congo (Zaire), Cameroon, Gabon, Congo and Angola. • Orang-utans: in danger of extinction. Orang-utans will have disappeared from the wild in Sumatra by 2005 and in Borneo by 2010. Prior to 1998, these five species were grouped together in a single "super-family", Hominoidea, which comprised the Hominidea family of humans, and the Pongidea family of the other four great apes. Because this separation has no genetic justification, these five species have now been classified in the same family, Hominidea. Will the "five families’ tree", a tree that is millions of years old and whose roots go back to the deepest mysteries of the Earth, will this "ancestral tree" like other millennial trees be savagely cut down? Of these five families, only one is breaking the living chain and changing biodiversity, an essential evolutionary factor. Will we have the courage to become citizens of the Earth, co-guardians of life on our "blue planet"?

Bridging the divide

"In the past, ethics have made the mistake of considering only Man’s behaviour towards Man, when in reality we need to consider how Man behaves towards the world and towards the different forms of life he encounters," (A. Schweitzer, Anthropology, 1947). In the sixteenth century, Copernicus and Galileo shook western thinking to its roots. The Earth, until then the centre of the universe and existing only to satisfy Man’s needs, suddenly rotated around another, larger centre, the Sun. Four thousand years of geocentric beliefs fell apart. And yet the "sister belief" of anthropocentrism is still very much alive in the twenty-first century. Man still believes he is the all-powerful centre of creation and that all other creatures are there to serve him. To recognise non-human great apes as individuals, equal to humans, could have the same bombshell effect as heliocentrism, or as Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Such a bombshell would have the salutary effect of dismantling "homocentrism", the cause of specism, and replacing it with a wider centre embracing all forms of life. Non-human great apes are the most obvious candidates for this new status as individuals with the same fundamental rights as humans. Firstly, because observation has shown they have self-awareness, and this is what defines a individual as opposed to a thing. Secondly, because they are in a crisis situation. They could be the ultimate step towards granting the status of "animal individual" to both wild and domestic animals. Animals have rights, defined in terms of what humans can or cannot do. But their intrinsic value is still not recognised and therefore they are still not recognised in the eyes of the law. Defending the rights of non-human great apes will provide the necessary impetus to break through the species barrier and instate equality among all animals.

The Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes

This is the principal aim of the Great Ape Project, founded by the philosopher Peter Singer (author of Animal Liberation) and the journalist Paola Cavalieri. The Project seeks to extend the ethical community from which Man benefits to non-human great apes. The Declaration asks that the community of equals, which already includes humans, be extended to chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans so that they might benefit from fundamental rights such as the right to life, the protection of individual liberty and the prohibition of torture. The Project aims to collect enough signatures across the world so it can then request the creation of a United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes. One Voice helps diffuse this Declaration in France via its great apes campaign. In the longer term, One Voice will work with the Great Ape Project to obtain legislation that will guarantee these three fundamental rights for non-human great apes, with no return obligation, on a par with children’s rights. Human guardians could be named who would defend great apes’ rights in court whenever these were threatened or violated by an act or decision. We must also continue to work for the creation of the first independent territories under the aegis of an international group, where non-human apes can live freely. To kill a great ape would be murder; to experiment on a great ape would be torture. Great apes that are held captive by zoos, circuses, laboratories or private individuals must be freed and taken to sanctuaries where they will either spend the rest of their life in freedom, or the time needed before they can return to their natural environment. Man learned to walk upright alongside non-human great apes. Man can become morally upright by offering great apes his help, by using words and deeds to forge equality instead of domination. We have destroyed their world. It is up to us to rebuild it. These sanctuaries would be the foundations on which we must build. The Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes is the cement. Sign it, encourage others to sign it, and become an equal with other individuals, the non-human great apes.

Marité Moralès

 

                                                                                                                       Translation: Sandra Petch