Granting “Personhood” Status for Great Apes

Humans are classified by biologists as Great Apes, along with orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos.  And geneticists inform us that we share 98 percent of our DNA with chimps.

Yet all the Great Apes are in jeopardy.  They are being wantonly killed, sometimes unnecessarily used for research, captured for zoos, and illegally sold as pets.  Plus their native habitat is being destroyed at an alarming rate.

The question becomes how do we protect our closest evolutionary relatives and what protective rights do they deserve?  In law, nonhuman animals–and inanimate objects–are considered property.  As such, they can be bought, sold, killed, and otherwise harmed as we humans see fit.  Some scientists and ethicists are suggesting that they be considered for “personhood” status.

For me, protecting Great Apes is an important and highly personal issue.  I’ve had the pleasure of observing mountain gorillas, chimps, and orangs in their natural environments; the gorillas and chimps in Africa and the orangs on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia.


A recent experience, with a group of 14 mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Impenetrable Forest left me awestruck.  Heading into the rainforest, I thought we would be observing the gorillas from afar, using binoculars and telephoto lenses.  Instead our guides took us into the heart of the group, and we spent an hour walking around in their midst.  One of the large 500-pound male gorillas came over and started to chew on my shirt before eventually losing interest.

Male Mountain Gorilla Chewing on My Shirt in Southern Uganda

Male Mountain Gorilla Chewing on My Shirt in Southern Uganda

Gorillas are, for the most part, vegetarians; but they do eat insects.  During the hour we observed them, they were calmly eating leaves.  During the season, they also enjoy fruit and nuts.  Gorillas spend most of their day foraging for food.

Last year, in New York State, judicial courts took up lawsuits filed by a group called the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) on behalf of four captive chimps.  The NhRP wanted the chimps designated as legal “persons” (the lawsuits were ultimately rejected).  And Yale University recently hosted a conference titled:  “Personhood Beyond the Human.”

These types of activities are resulting in a reconsideration of what separates human beings from other creatures.  For example, researchers have found that chimps are capable of “future directedness.”  They amass stones to later use against antagonists, contradicting the common belief that animals live in only in present tense.

For a time, it was also believed that animals didn’t use tools.  But at a chimpanzee refuge on an island in Lake Victoria, I observed chimps using sticks to capture fruit from underneath a protective fence.

There is concern that raising the moral and legal status of some animals may eventually lead to a diminishment of humans as persons.  The logic is that the more widely shared “personhood” status becomes, the less protected human beings will be.

Jessica Pierce in Psychology Today suggests an approach other than “personhood”:  “Shouldn’t there be a concept of ‘animalhood’ that allows us to affirm the qualities in animals that accord them moral value, that transforms them from object into subject?  This might be better than ‘personhood,’ since we really aren’t arguing that chimps are exactly like humans.”

Applying the concept of “animalhood” or in some way qualifying Great Apes for “personhood” strengthens the case for treating them with respect.  And they deserve far more respect and legal protection than they are currently getting.

For a list of all my great ape articles, click here.

This entry was posted in Environment, great apes, Personal Essays, Science, Social Justice, transhumanism, Travel, uganda. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Granting “Personhood” Status for Great Apes

  1. Pingback: Granting “Personhood” Status for Great Apes | Reason & Existenz

  2. Pingback: Do Dead Turkeys Deserve a Road Sign Memorial? | Tired Road Warrior

  3. Pingback: Stop Shooting Gorillas, Grant Them Personhood Rights | Tired Road Warrior

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