Great apes

Great apes are often said to be the most similar to humans and include chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos. Chimpanzees (along with other great apes) have demonstrated that they are intelligent, good problem solvers, and often better than humans at math. Great apes are known to have excellent long-term memory skills[1] and can anticipate events in a movie they have seen before.[2] They are highly social and have been shown to starve themselves rather than inflict pain on another chimp. When given the choice, they prefer outcomes that reward both themselves and their apparent opponent.[3]

Orangutan mothers stay with their young for eight to ten years, nurturing them.[4] The intelligence of orangutans is reflected in the way in which they learn complicated new skills, such as sawing wood or using a hammer and nail to put things together. Orangutans have the ability to understand their surroundings in a more abstract way than other animals so they know how to acclimate to some very harsh environments.

Other primates that have been researched include baboons—old world monkeys who live in complex social structures and have cognitive abilities very similar to chimpanzees and orangutans. Studies have shown that baboons are able to identify stress and cope with it, and can think critically when confronted with difficult situations. Rhesus Monkeys are extremely smart and resourceful, able to coordinate well-planned group attacks.

Introducing great apes to technology has had some surprising results. By providing chimpanzees with a customized video camera, the chimps created a movie as part of a project for researchers to understand how chimpanzees perceive the world and themselves.[5] Orangutans at an increasing number of zoos (e.g., Atlanta, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Smithsonian, Toronto) are using iPads to play games, watch videos, listen to music, and even Skype or FaceTime with each other.[6] At the Lake Superior Zoo, monkeys are also using iPads to create artwork.[7] Kanzi, a bonobo at the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative, has a 3,000 word English vocabulary, cooks, plays music, uses a computer, makes sarcastic jokes, and Skypes.[8]

A recent event regarding technology has raised the personhood issue from an intriguing angle. While photographer David Slater was in Indonesia taking pictures of endangered crested macaques, one of them used his camera to take a selfie, which has now gone viral as “Monkey Selfie.”[9] Slater believes that he owns the copyright on the picture, which is part of his book Wildlife Personalities, as it was taken with his camera. However, PETA has filed suit in California saying that copyright should rest with the monkey, who should benefit from its proceeds.

The Great Ape Project, begun in 1994, was the first to address the issue more broadly of legal rights and legal standing or personhood. Its focus was on our closest genetic relatives, the Great Apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans). Based on their being intelligent, self-aware, and highly social, it launched the World Declaration on Great Primates that espouses the right to life, the right to individual freedom including protection from commercial exploitation or trading, and a prohibition of torture (including testing in research labs).[10]

In 1999, New Zealand granted basic rights to great apes, making their use in research, testing or teaching illegal. In 2007, the Balearic Islands granted legal personhood rights to all great apes. Meanwhile Switzerland amended its constitution in 1992 to recognize animals as beings rather than as things and added a law on respectful treatment of animals.[11] Germany followed in 2002 with a constitutional amendment guaranteeing rights to animals.

[1] Cell Press, “Chimpanzees and Orangutans Remember Distant Past Events,” ScienceDaily (18 July 2013).

[2] Cell Press, “Apes Know a Good Thriller When They See One,” ScienceDaily (17 September 2015).

[3] F. de Waal, “The Brains of the Animal Kingdom,” The Wall Street Journal (22 March 2013).

[4] Gruen, 2012, op.cit.

[5] M. Walker, “Movie Made by Chimpanzees to Be Broadcast,” BBC Earth News (25 January 2010).

[6] S. Anthony, “Orangutans to Skype Between Zoos with iPads,” ExtremeTech (30 December 2011); R. Boyle, “FaceTime for Apes: Orangutans Use iPads to Video Chat With Friends In Other Zoos,“ Popular Science (3 January 2012); K. Fernandez-Blance, “Toronto Zoo Orangutans Go Ape for iPad,” The Star (23 August 2012).

[7] B. Henry, “Monkeys Connect to the Digital Age at Lake Superior Zoo,” (13 February 2015).

[8] T. Leonard, “He Can Cook, Play Music, Use a Computer – and Make Sarcastic Jokes Chatting with His 3,000-Word Vocabulary: My Lunch with the World’s Cleverest Chimp (Who Skyped Me Later for Another Chat),” Daily Mail (6 June 2014).

[9] H. Yan, “PETA Suit Claims Money Holds Copyright to Famous Selfie,” CNN (23 September 2015).

[10] See the World Declaration on Great Primates.

[11] Swiss Federal Ethics Committee for Non-Human Biotechnology, The Dignity of Animals (February 2001); L. Hickman, “The Lawyer Who Defends Animals,” The Guardian, (05 March 2010); “Life Looks Up for Swiss Animals,” Swiss (23 April 2008).