If you have been involved in the animal rights movement for any length of time—indeed, if you have contributed only to one animal organization in your entire life—you probably receive a seemingly endless number of fundraising solicitations. Last week, as I was sorting through all of the many opportunities being offered to me to “help the animals” by writing a check, I noticed one from the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS) asking for money to support “Project R&R: Release and Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories.”
NEAVS tells us that chimpanzees “share 96% of our genes. They live in families, protect their young, form friendships, and express joy, sorrow and anger. They display intelligence, humor and compassion.” The theme of the campaign is that because chimpanzees have cognitive capacities and a genetic profile similar to ours—they are “real individuals, with unique personalities and needs just like you and me.” NEAVS seeks donations to launch an informational and legislative campaign to join those countries that have “banned or severely limited research on chimpanzees and other great apes.”
The NEAVS campaign and similar efforts—there are a number—are not new or original. In 1993, a number of scholars collaborated on a book of essays entitled The Great Ape Project (GAP). The book was accompanied by a document, “A Declaration on Great Apes,” to which the contributors subscribed. The Declaration states that the great apes “are the closest relatives of our species” and that these nonhumans “have mental capacities and an emotional life sufficient to justify inclusion within the community of equals.”
Since 1993, there have been efforts in several countries to limit or stop research on great apes. The idea behind these efforts is that because the nonhuman great apes have characteristics thought to be uniquely human, such as self-awareness, abstract thought, emotions, and the ability to communicate in a symbolic language, they are entitled to certain fundamental rights.
I certainly agree that it is wrong to use nonhuman great apes in research or in circuses, or to confine them in zoos, or to use them for any other purpose. But I reject what I call the “similar minds” position that links the moral status of nonhumans to their possession of humanlike cognitive characteristics. The exploitation of the nonhuman great apes is immoral for the same reason that is immoral to exploit the hundreds of millions of mice and rats who are routinely exploited in laboratories or the billions of nonhumans who we kill and eat: the nonhuman great apes and all of these other nonhumans are, like us, sentient. They are conscious; they are subjectively aware; they have interests; they can suffer. No characteristic other than sentience is required for personhood.