Do apes have human rights?

Spain may soon give rights to great apes. That could better their treatment. But it will erode rights.

Within weeks, Spain is likely to go beyond laws that protect animals and be the first country to give rights to nonhumans, specifically great apes – gorillas, chimps, bonobos, and orangutans. If other governments follow, a line between mankind and animals will be crossed. Will such an action be a step up for humans?

Not if it diminishes the essence of what is a right.

The possibility of such a risk is why a parliamentary panel in Spain recommends only a few rights for these species that are close to humans in evolution and that can display certain humanlike behavior.

One such behavior is a limited capacity for human language. The famous captive gorilla Koko, for instance, has been taught – by humans – to communicate in sign language and can understand more than 2,000 spoken words. It's unlikely, though, any ape has the potential – as humans do – to express "I have constitutional rights."

Spain's proposed law might help bolster rules on humane treatment of animals. Its action would elevate great apes in captivity to more than property. They would have standing in court, much as children or unconscious patients do. They could be given a guardian or lawyer.

The law would grant apes a right to life. No human could kill them except in self-defense. They would have a right to be free of abuse. They couldn't be used in medical experiments, circuses, movies, and TV commercials. And so forth.

Apes would not have many other rights, such as the right to vote or to a free press. It is in such impossibilities that the very concept of animal rights falters. Rights are inherent to humans and guide the rules and laws that govern society. To parcel only a few rights to other species is to say other species are different. But humans and their rights are a whole idea.

In some religions, such rights are derived from God. To others, rights are simply a result of consensus within society.

Humans stand out for an ability to reason, to understand past and future, to communicate in abstractions. These qualities are unique; only humans can take on a special stewardship toward other life – even restricting rights to end brutal exploitation of animals. And honoring human kindness toward animals includes even such gestures as the late hotelier Leona Helmsley's leaving millions of dollars for the care of her dog.

To grant only a few rights to only a few animals is to go down a slippery slope of moral relativism. If some animals are treated in law like humans, that gives ammunition to some humans who see some types of humans as animals. History shows – in the Holocaust and in African slavery – how that ends. Because rights are unique and absolute to humans – who have the potential to grasp their meaning – they are a protection to humans.

At the least, Spain's action may help ignite a useful debate on the origins and uses of rights. Are rights independent of human thinking? Do they bestow human responsibility toward all living creatures?

Even as it weighs this law on ape rights, Spain is not moving to ban the cruel sport of bullfighting or the run of the bulls at Pamplona. There's a lesson in that: Let human rights remain in the human realm while mankind works on improving its treatment of animals.

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