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Do chimps have a right to life?

February 14, 2022

Non-human primates are self-aware. And they plan for the future. So should they get basic rights like humans? The Swiss canton of Basel, home to drug research, has voted.

A young chimpanzee with a parent
Apes like the chimpanzee are close relatives of humans. Should they have similar rights to us?Image: Anja Krug-Metzinger Filmproduktion GmbH

In a referendum on Sunday, people in the Swiss canton of Basel voted against giving non-human primates the right to life and physical and mental integrity.

Almost 75% rejected a plan to give non-human primates similar rights to humans.

It was a contentious referendum, as referendums often are. But in this specific case the question of whether non-human primates should be given or deserve basic rights, such as human rights, was contentious because of where it took place.

Basel is the third-most populous city in Switzerland. It is also home to two large, international pharmaceutical companies, Roche and Novartis. Both have used animals in their research to develop drugs.

Neither company current works with primates, and as private companies, Roche and Novartis would have been exempt from any local law on basic rights for primates. It would only have applied to public institutions, such as hospitals and the university in town.

A world first

"It's the first time, globally, that an electorate got to vote on whether non-human primates should have basic rights," said Tamina Graber, head of the campaign for primates' rights at Sentience, the group that initiated the Basel referendum.

Speaking before the vote, Graber told DW they hoped that other cantons in Switzerland and indeed other countries would also "consider whether we humans are the only ones who can have rights."

Switzerland's animal welfare law aims to "protect the dignity and welfare of animals." But Graber said it does not offer sufficient protection to animals.

The law, Graber said, places the interest of humans, no matter how small, over the interests of non-human primates, no matter how big.

That's why they are campaigning for more fundamental rights — specifically for non-human primates, apes, such as chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.

"They are our closest relatives. We know the most about what they want," said Graber. "Science has taught us that they want to live, that they plan for the future and that they want to remain physically and mentally unharmed."

'Animals experience feelings'

Switzerland is not the only country where animal rights have been in the news lately.

The UK government introduced an Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill in 2021, which is still passing through Parliament. But with it, the UK would formally recognize animals as sentient beings.

That means that "any new legislation [would] have to take into account the fact that animals can experience feelings such as pain or joy," the government wrote in a press release last year.

The measures would stop most live animal exports and stop people from keeping primates as pets. But it would not ban animal testing.

A ban on animal testing would have disastrous consequences, said Understanding Animal Research, a British nongovernmental organization that says it advocates for the humane use of animals in research.

"A ban on using animals in research would remove the only way of deriving information that's vital for medical, veterinary and environmental science," said Chris Magee, the organization's head of policy and media.

It's not just about avoiding suffering

As for the situation in Germany, some say there's a problem with implementing the law.

Karsten Brensing, a biologist and behavioral scientist, said Germany's animal welfare laws are good.

But he said people don't fully adhere to the laws, such as in providing ethical practices in animal farming, known as husbandry.  

"Biologically, adequate husbandry isn't just about avoiding pain and suffering for the animals," said Brensing. "It's about actively ensuring that the animals have joy in their lives."

Factory farming under pressure

Studies on empathy in animals

Brensing said the initiative for primates' basic rights in Switzerland is "fully reasonable, scientifically speaking."

Primates have a sense of self, he said — they exhibit cognitive abilities, such as logical thinking, and they display empathy. Other animals, such as rodents, have also demonstrated care for one another.

For example, in one study, rats were given the choice of either freeing other rats from a cage or getting a chocolate treat. And the results seemed to suggest that the rats preferred helping others than treating themselves. They were even observed cuddling each other after the caged rats were freed.

"They do experience empathy," said Brensing. "And if rats have that, primates definitely have it, too."

A white rat
Rats are willing to give up sweet treats in order to free other ratsImage: AP

Human vs. animal experiences

Some researchers question whether animals truly experience empathy or whether our observations are a case of researchers transferring their own human experiences and emotional needs onto non-human animals.

Peter Kunzmann, a professor of ethics in veterinary medicine, said it's dangerous to ascribe rights to animals based on human attributes.

Kunzmann, who teaches at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hannover, is against initiatives like the one started by Sentience in Basel.

"I am a big defender of the principle of human dignity and of the concept that there are certain things humans deserve by sheer virtue of being human," said  Kunzmann. "And I get very, very concerned when there are attempts to dilute this. Humans have rights and dignity simply because they are human."

Sentience said it's not calling for human rights as they apply to people, "but fundamental rights adjusted for non-human primates."

But he remains concerned.

"If you're consistent with this, a number of people would lose the status that grants them rights," said Kunzmann. "Newborns would have different rights from adults because they [lack] intelligence and don't have plans for the future yet. Mentally ill people could lose their rights, dementia patients would lose them, people in a coma would, too."

Kunzmann does, however, believe that animals deserve to be treated in a respectful way.

Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany


Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker