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Chimps Will Inherit the Earth?

Chimpanzee photo by MartinOC Last summer, around the time that Leona Helmsley's dog inherited 13 million dollars, an Austrian chimp named Hiasl got stiffed. Hiasl stood to come into a few thousand Euros, but a court ruled that he could not own property, being a chimp and all. (Technically, the Helmsley dog does not own her millions either; Trouble Helmsley inherited her money through a human proxy.)

Surely, Hiasl's advocates could have found the same sort of legal workaround to provide him the stipend he needed for his upkeep in a shelter. But the activists wanted to make a point: why shouldn't a chimp have some limited rights of person under the law? This summer, a judge outside of Vienna weighed the question of whether a chimp might be human enough to own property. If he won, Hiasl himself would receive the money, although his legal, human guardian would make all financial decisions.

And here's the thing about chimps with money: while a dog like Trouble can't grasp the idea of currency at all, a chimp might actually be capable of shopping. The great apes can use language; and some researchers believe they can string together sentences. Furthermore, they understand the fundamentals of market exchange. Econ 101: I give you the dollar bill; you give me the banana.

What would a chimp -- working in tandem with an indulgent guardian—do with a few thousand Euros? Or what if he came into a Helmsley-sized fortune? What would chimp luxury look like? I'm put in mind of Lucy Temerlin, a chimp who was brought up like a human child in the 1960s—she learned to dress herself, use silverware, talk in sign language and make tea. Once she became an adult, Lucy developed tastes that were very Vegas: she liked to sip her gin straight, flip through Playgirl magazine, and masturbate with a vacuum cleaner. (Which brings new meaning to the term "tool wielding.")

But, of course, for Hiasl it was not gin and porn that hung in the balance. He'd been poached as a baby, sold on the black market, and rescued by animal lovers; now, his friends wanted to make sure he did not end up again falling into an abusive situation. They believed that if Hiasl became a demi-person, he would have more safeguards under the law.

Hiasl lost the case.

The whole argument may seem trivial, but consider this: Laws that protect animals often change the nature of human rights.  In the early 1870s, no laws existed in the United States to protect children from cruelty. And so, when advocates for an abused child wanted to defend her in court, they had to go to Henry Burgh, the founder of the American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals; having managed to outlaw the torture of horses and dogs, it was Burgh who helped to extend similar rights to children.

Oh by the way, remember Lucy, the chimp with a taste for gin? She didn't come to a good end. When her "parents" could no longer keep her, she was released into the wild in Africa to find for herself. A hunter shot her, and saved her hands as trophies.

Pagan Kennedy has published seven books, including The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution. Her biography Black Livingstone was named a New York Times Notable. Her novel Spinsters was short-listed for the Orange Prize and was the winner of the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. She has written for the New York Times magazine, Boston Globe magazine, the Village Voice, Details, the Utne Reader, the Nation, and Ms. magazine. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.