What’s the Difference between a Chimpanzee, a Sewage Sludge Hauler, and My Mother?

© Margaret Balch-Gonzalez, originally published in The Witches of Agnesi, 2008

As I discovered while following the plight of an Austrian chimpanzee called Hiasl, that’s a very good question.

A Chimpanzee

Hiasl was captured in Sierra Leone in 1982. A pharmaceutical company attempted to smuggle him into Austria for its vivisection laboratory, but he was seized in customs. In 2007, the sanctuary where he had ended up went bankrupt, and a philanthropist wanted to donate money for his support. But according to Austrian law, only a person can receive money. The sanctuary’s creditors would get the donation – and the vivisection lab would get Hiasl.

Paula Stibbe, a British animal rights activist, petitioned the Austrian courts to be appointed as Hiasl’s legal guardian, but she would have to establish that Hiasl was a person. Chimpanzees, the argument went, shared 96 to 98.4% of human DNA and had a culture of sorts, so they should be considered people and granted certain human rights.

The Austrian courts rejected the argument, reasoning that Hiasl did not need a guardian, because he is not a disabled person – he is a normal chimpanzee. Furthermore, comparing a chimpanzee to a disabled person might encourage the perception that disabled people are like animals. The case is now being appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. (See References below for sources on Hiasl’s story).

My Mother

I know what the Austrian judge means. Advocates for considering apes as humans rely on arguments such as this one, quoted in What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and Their Genes by bioethicist Jonathan Marks (2002) in a discussion of the ethical quagmire such an argument bogs down in:

“We give human rights to children, to the aged and to the mentally infirm, to the autistic, to the deaf and dumb…. [Apes] can reason and communicate at least as well as some of the children and disabled humans to whom we accord human rights.” (p. 190)

My mother, in the last 7 years of her life, was one of those disabled people to whom Hiasl was being compared. I find that comparison inappropriate. A devastating stroke left my mother paralyzed and unable to communicate, even at the level that a chimpanzee might ask for a banana. When I was appointed as her legal guardian, it was to administer the complex legal, financial, medical, and personal affairs of what had once been a thoughtful, vibrant, active human being. It was not to accept donations on her behalf to save her from being sent to a vivisection laboratory.

Using a certain level of cognition, communications, and culture as a test to determine personhood has troubling implications. Scholars like Marks and linguist Steven Pinker (1995) are appalled at the common assumption that the “factoid” that chimpanzees share 98% of human DNA means that they are 98% human. Marks points out that using degree of cognition to define humanity supports the central argument of books like The Bell Curve that put what looks like genetics at the service of repellent social and political philosophies.

Pinker analyzes the scientifically unsound nature of many of the claims that apes can use human language, like in the case of the chimpanzee Washoe, who was said to have learned American Sign Language:

“This preposterous claim is based on the myth that ASL is a crude system of pantomimes and gestures, rather than a full language with complex phonology, morphology, and syntax.” (p. 337)

The people who claimed to have taught Washoe ASL were all hearing people, Pinker says. The only deaf native ASL signer on the team asserted that none of Washoe’s gestures were really ASL signs.

We’re not doing a favor to animals, either, by insisting that they must be nearly as smart and articulate as we are to be worthy of humane treatment. Pinker asks, “What about all the creepy, nasty, selfish animals who do not remind us of ourselves…. Can we go ahead and wipe them out?” (p. 336)

A Sewage Sludge Hauler

We are especially confused about what personhood means in the U. S., due to the unusual interpretations we have historically made of the centuries-old legal principle that treats corporations as “persons” (Ecology Center, 2001) :

“The 14th Amendment was passed to protect the rights of former slaves after the Civil War. However, that very amendment became the favorite tool of lawyers seeking to establish corporations as “natural persons,” assuring them the human rights of due process, equal protection, freedom of speech, and protection against unreasonable search and seizure. In the same year they extended the 14th Amendment to corporations, the Supreme Court overturned a major civil rights act….

“Throughout the U.S., the civil rights of African-Americans were being scaled back in other courts, paving the way for segregation. In 1938, Justice Hugo Black remarked that of the cases in which the Supreme Court applied the 14th Amendment during the first 50 years after Santa Clara vs. Southern Pacific, “less that one-half of 1% invoked it in protection of the Negroe race, and more than 50% asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.”

In 2006, one township in Pennsylvania was so fed up with corporations dumping toxic sewage sludge that it took an unusual action, described in Mother Jones (Yeoman, 2006):

“[Licking Township] had passed an anti-sludge ordinance, only to be sued by a sludge hauler called Synagro, which argued that the township had infringed on its rights under the 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War to guarantee “equal protection” to all. Synagro could make that argument because since the late 19th century, the Supreme Court has defined corporations as legal “persons,” conferring on them many of the same rights that belong to flesh-and-blood citizens. And so, Licking’s supervisors did something that has been variously described as creative, futile, or out-and-out revolutionary: They passed an ordinance declaring that henceforth, in their township, ‘Corporations shall not be considered to be “persons” protected by the Constitution of the United States.'”

What’s the Difference?

It’s hard to dispute that humans ought to feel some responsibility for getting Hiasl out of the fix they have put him in. But conferring personhood on chimpanzees is not the answer. The world doesn’t need more confusion about who is a “real” human being and what hierarchy of rights should be granted to people who are “almost” human. On that topic, we’re confused enough already.


Bryner, Jeanna. 2008. “Court Claim: Chimps Are People, Too,Live Science, May 29.

Connolly, Kate. 2007. “Court to Rule if Chimp Has Human Rights.” UK Guardian/The Observer, April 1.

Ecology Center. 2001. “Corporation as Person.” Ecology Center (Spring): Berkeley, CA.

Keim, Brandon. 2007. “Should Chimpanzees Be Given Human Rights?Wired Science, May 11.

Marks, Jonathan. 2002. What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and Their Genes. Ewing, NJ: University of California Press.

Pinker, Steven. 1995. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: HarperCollins.

Stafford, Ned. 2007. “Chimp Denied Legal Guardian,BioEd Online, April 26.

tzramsoy. 2007. “If a Chimp Gets Its Rights…BrainEthics, May 29.

Yeoman, Barry. December, 2006. “When Is a Corporation Like a Freed Slave?” Mother Jones (November/December).

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