The headline arrested the eye: "Is a Chimp a 'Person' With a Legal Right to a Lawyer in Court?" And the mind went immediately to Robert Heinlein's 1947 short story, "Jerry Was a Man."
But before getting into all that, some context.
Periodically, stories pop up about the fate of smart animals, often those used in entertainment and research. Porpoises can be released back into the sea. But what about parrots past their prime or those whose owners have died or lost interest in them? And what about gorillas and chimpanzees?
For years the federal government has used chimpanzees in medical and military research. Who can forget the chimps that went into orbit early in the manned space program?
Chimps can live 50 years. Currently, the government has about 1,500 of them at isolated sites around the country. Some are retired, with or without such things as HIV; some are still available for research. What to do with them - and how to treat them?
Which brings us back to the story by Heinlein, one of the most intellectually provocative greats of the science-fiction genre. As noted in this space before.
The world's richest woman learns that trusted chimpanzees in a made-to-order animal factory are treated as slaves, and once past their usefulness on the production line are ground into dog food. She adopts an aging chimp named Jerry, and on his behalf files suit to establish his "humanity."
The grounds? Primarily, that he can make literal and moral judgments, long deemed the separator between men and beasts. Given Jerry's demonstrated ability to distinguish between right and wrong, the court judges Jerry to be a man - thereby saving him from the grinder.
In the real world, Heinlein's science-fiction queries apply with even greater force.
Do traditional man-beast distinctions still apply? What is an animal and what is a man? What are our humanity-related obligations to animals? Do chimps have rights - and if so, what sort?
Jerry was a man. Are chimps?
Koko, a female lowland gorilla, has a 70 to 95 human-scale IQ, knows 2,000 words of spoken English, knows the meaning of 1,000 signs, and - her owner/trainer/researcher says - possesses humor and moral judgment.
Simba, a chimp retired from an ice-skating career and currently housed in Arizona, digs "O Sole Mio" - particularly when Pavarotti belts it out.
Alex, an African Grey parrot, is apparently no birdbrain. He knows basic numbers, can indicate things that are the same and different, and one day may be able to read. When his owner closes her laboratory door each evening, Alex likely will say, "Bye. You be good. I'm gonna go eat dinner. I'll see you tomorrow."
There have been famous apes, porpoises, seals, bears, dancing dogs, nickelodeon monkeys and talking birds. Richmond, Va., long boasted a horse, Lady Wonder, that many swore could count. At least one medical school has experimented with baboons - hooking them up to humans with liver failure to purify the humans' blood. What serious canine-owner will not testify that Rover has more sense and stronger emotions than the next 10 people you're likely to meet on the sidewalk?
And what about the 1,500 captive chimpanzees either retired - as Jerry was - or waiting to be tapped for further research?
The Animal Welfare Act makes outright abuse of animals illegal. Since 1997 the National Institutes of Health has imposed a moratorium on breeding chimps, which some have suggested farming like cattle for use as organ donors or living blood banks. Two years ago Congress passed the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act - providing money for several retired-chimp sanctuaries.
But several groups are out beating the tom-toms for expanded rights for chimps - notably with legal standing and/or with human guardians (begin ital) ad litem
able (The Wall Street Journal's words) "to represent (chimps), much as judges now appoint such guardians to represent children in abuse cases or mentally incompetent adults."
Notes Harvard's Laurence Tribe: "The whole status of animals as things is what needs to be rethought. Non-human animals certainly can be given standing." Harvard's Steven Wise says: "If a human 4-year-old has what it takes for legal personhood, then a chimpanzee (of equal abilities) should be able to be a legal person in terms of legal rights." Adds the University of Chicago's Cass Sunstein, a supporter of legal guardians for animals: "The lawsuits are just beginning."
Chimps and humans share 98.7 percent of the same DNA; genetically, they are that close. Yet, legal rights? In this litigious land single-issuists soon would kill all animal research (into AIDS, hepatitis, malaria, etc.) intended to help humans.
What's more, it is difficult to see how a nation that cannot settle on legal standing for late-term fetuses - cannot agree to ban partial-birth abortions wherein a delivering baby has its skull collapsed in the birth canal - could agree to legal standing for animals, even those sharing 99 percent of human DNA, that are not fully human.
As the headline asked, "Is a chimp a 'person'?"
Despite Heinlein's conclusion, Jerry was not fully a man. Nor are his real-life counterparts.
Yet that does not make them any less deserving of decent, respectful treatment on a par with the treatment we give true humans in their declining years - after jobs well done and lives well lived.