Nepali Times
One World
A planet for all apes


Two new movies released this month, one a science-fiction blockbuster, the other a revealing documentary, raise the issue of our relations with our closest non-human relatives, the great apes. Both dramatise insights and lessons that should not be ignored.

Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the seventh film in a series based on Pierre Boule's 1963 novel, Planet of the Apes, about a world populated by highly intelligent simians. Performance capture technology, originally invented for the movie Avatar, enables a human actor, Andy Serkis, to play the role of the chimpanzee Caesar, not by dressing in a chimp suit, but by having every gesture and facial movement, even the twitch of an eyebrow, transformed into the movement of an ape.

Will Rodman (played by James Franco), is a scientist seeking a cure for Alzheimer's disease who experiments on apes. Many films would have glorified a scientist seeking such a goal, and treated the use of animals for that purpose as obviously justified. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, portrays Rodman as, in Franco's words, "a cold, isolated person".

Only when Rodman's superiors cancel his experiments and he takes home Caesar, an infant chimpanzee, does the scientist begin to care about others. The plot then takes another turn when Caesar becomes too big and aggressive to live in a human home, and is taken to what is supposed to be a primate sanctuary, but is in fact a dumping ground for unwanted apes, run by humans who display cruelty to the captive animals.

Project Nim, a documentary based on Elizabeth Hess's book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human, is about Nim who was born in 1973 in a primate research facility in Oklahoma, and was taken from his mother when he was only ten days old, to be used in a sign-language experiment.

Reared as part of a human family, he learned to use more than 100 signs from American Sign Language. But Nim was taken from his first human family and handed over to other teachers with whom he did not have the same kind of bond. He grew stronger and more aggressive and began biting his teachers.

Herbert Terrace, the Columbia University psychologist who was directing the project, decided to end it and sent Nim back to the primate facility in Oklahoma. There, the pampered chimpanzee, who, when asked to sort photos of humans and apes, put his own photo among the humans, was locked in a cage with other chimps. Nim narrowly escaped being infected with hepatitis as part of a medical experiment, until he was eventually released to an animal sanctuary, where he died in 2000.

In 1993, Paola Cavalieri and I founded The Great Ape Project, an organization dedicated to the idea of recognising that great apes have a moral status befitting their nature as self-aware beings who are capable of thought and have rich and deep emotional lives. At a minimum, they should have the rights to life, liberty, and protection from torture that we grant to all members of our own species, regardless of their intellectual abilities.

Since 2010, the European Union has essentially banned the use of great apes in experiments. Experiments on great apes are now either banned or severely restricted in New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. In the United States, a bipartisan group of members of Congress is supporting legislation to end the use of chimpanzees in invasive research. Our closest relatives could serve to bridge the moral gulf that we have dug between ourselves and other animals.

Project Syndicate

Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His books include Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, The Ethics of What We Eat, and The Life You Can Save

Related stories:
Monkey business, DEWAN RAI

Year of the monkey, NARESH NEWAR
We could see the beginning of a new Nepali trade-monkeys for medical science.

Read also:

The stuff of intellectual life, MANJUSHREE THAPA
Nepal now has a literature festival, and not just one

1. B
Good one.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)