In Spain, Human Rights for Apes

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Susana Vera / Reuters

Spain's parliament is poised to pass a bill granting human rights to great apes such as chimps, gorillas and orangutans.

One could be forgiven for wondering how it is that Spain, of all places, is on track to become the first country in the world to extend limited "human" rights to apes. Just a few days ago, after all, hordes of drunken, kerchiefed Spaniards were taunting a small herd of frightened bulls as they careered through the narrow streets of Pamplona. To say nothing of the national pastime of cheering from the stands as a few guys in tight pants kill the beasts one by one.

Dissonant though it may be, on June 26, the environmental committee of Spain's lower house of parliament approved a resolution supporting the Great Ape Project, an organization and manifesto founded by ethicists Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri, which argues that three essential human rights — life, liberty and freedom from physical and psychological torture — should be extended to our closest hominid relatives. Joan Herrera, congressman for the Catalan Green Initiative party, justified the measure before parliament, saying that the primates "are capable of recognizing themselves, and have cognitive capabilities."

The resolution, which will likely be approved by the government in the next four months, will make Spain the first country in the world to grant rights to the great apes, which include gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans. It makes the killing of an ape a crime and bans their use in medical experiments, circuses, films and television commercials. Although Spanish zoos will be allowed to keep the 300 animals they currently have in captivity, they must improve their conditions. "It's a courageous and decisive step in breaking the species barrier and granting deserved rights to those beings closest to us," says Pedro Pozas, director of the Spanish branch of the Great Ape Project.

Not everyone has been thrilled to see that barrier broken. News of the resolution has prompted nervous commentary around the world about the blurring of the once-solid line that divided humans from other animals. In Spain, the conservative Popular Party has decried the project as a poor use of the parliament's time and energy as Spain's once-booming economy starts to decline. And the Catholic Church has spoken out against the Project for eroding the Biblical hierarchy that gives humans dominion over the earth. "This is either a ridiculous society or a dislocated one," said the Archbishop of Pamplona. "Asking for human rights for monkeys is like asking for bull rights for men."

Bull rights? Here in the middle of bullfighting season, when each weekend brings the bloody ritual slaughter — for sport or for art, depending upon your point of view — of more toros bravos, those animals appear to have precious few rights at all.

How can Spain be so progressive in its treatment of one animal species, and so ... traditional in its treatment of another? In part, the answer lies with the Project's own rationale for singling out great apes. "They are animals with highly developed intelligence and emotional capacity," says Marta Tafalla, a law professor who specializes in animal rights at Barcelona's Autonomous University. "They have curiosity, they feel affection and jealousy, they lie, and they suffer horribly when they are deprived of their freedom." The same argument is harder to make when it comes to bulls.

Economics also plays a role. Bullfighting is still a major tourist attraction, and the industry is wealthy. "They have tremendous financial power," says Pozas. "I've always said that as activists we have to separate our campaign against bullfighting from that of other animal rights because if we don't, bullfighting will stop the whole thing. They're too powerful."

But more to the point, the difference in treatment underlines the contradictions laid bare by Spain's recent and frenzied catapult into modernity. The resolution is one more way — along with gay marriage, secularization, and gender parity — for the Spanish government to demonstrate its newfound progressiveness. That progressiveness is not, by and large, imposed — the majority of Spaniards support all those measures. But the majority also still get married in church, have Sunday lunch with their parents, baptize their children, and spend a summer week in the pueblo from which their family came. Tradition, in other words, still matters.

And for many, bullfighting remains a powerful sign of identity. "It's part of our social genome," says Luis Corrales, president of the Platform for Defense of the Bullfight. "It gives us a sense of who we are as a people." That may be changing — one poll puts the proportion of Spaniards opposed to bullfighting at 80% — and animal rights proponents here like to point out that just because something is traditional doesn't make it right. Still, activists on both side of the bullfighting fence agree that, at least for now, a law banning bullfighting is unthinkable.

They also concur, however, that the Great Ape resolution is a step in that direction. "I completely agree that apes should be protected against enslavement and abuse," says Corrales. "But when you start equating animals with humans, it's a slippery slope." One that he worries could eventually lead to quieter deaths for Spain's noble bulls.