Activists Want Chimp Declared a 'Person'
VIENNA, Austria - In some ways, Hiasl is like any other Viennese: He indulges a weakness for pastry, likes to paint and enjoys chilling out watching TV.But he doesn't care for coffee, and he isn't actually a person-at least not yet.
In a case that could set a global legal precedent for granting basic rights to apes, animal rights advocates are seeking to get the 26- year-old male chimpanzee legally declared a "person."
Hiasl's supporters argue he needs that status to become a legal entity that can receive donations and get a guardian to look out for his interests.
"Our main argument is that Hiasl is a person and has basic legal rights," said Eberhart Theuer, a lawyer leading the challenge on behalf of the Association Against Animal Factories, a Vienna animal rights group.
"We mean the right to life, the right to not be tortured, the right to freedom under certain conditions," Theuer said.
"We're not talking about the right to vote here."
The campaign began after the animal sanctuary where Hiasl (pronounced HEE-zul) and another chimp, Rosi, have lived for 25 years went bankrupt.
Activists want to ensure the apes don't wind up homeless if the shelter closes. Both have already suffered: They were captured as babies in Sierra Leone in 1982 and smuggled in a crate to Austria for use in pharmaceutical experiments. Customs officers intercepted the shipment and turned the chimps over to the shelter.
Their food and veterinary bills run about $6,800 a month. Donors have offered to help, but there's a catch: Under Austrian law, only a person can receive personal donations.
Organizers could set up a foundation to collect cash for Hiasl, whose life expectancy in captivity is about 60 years. But without basic rights, they contend, he could be sold to someone outside Austria, where the chimp is protected by strict animal cruelty laws.
"If we can get Hiasl declared a person, he would have the right to own property. Then, if people wanted to donate something to him, he'd have the right to receive it," said Theuer, who has vowed to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.
Austria isn't the only country where primate rights are being debated. Spain's parliament is considering a bill that would endorse the Great Ape Project, a Seattle-based international initiative to extend "fundamental moral and legal protections" to apes.
If Hiasl gets a guardian, "it will be the first time the species barrier will have been crossed for legal 'personhood,'" said Jan Creamer, chief executive of Animal Defenders International, which is working to end the use of primates in research.
Paula Stibbe, a Briton who teaches English in Vienna, petitioned a district court to be Hiasl's legal trustee. On April 24, Judge Barbara Bart rejected her request, ruling Hiasl didn't meet two key tests: He is neither mentally impaired nor in an emergency.
Although Bart expressed concern that awarding Hiasl a guardian could create the impression that animals enjoy the same legal status as humans, she didn't rule that he could never be considered a person.
Martin Balluch, who heads the Association Against Animal Factories, has asked a federal court for a ruling on the guardianship issue.
"Chimps share 99.4 percent of their DNA with humans," he said. "OK, they're not homo sapiens. But they're obviously also not things-the only other option the law provides."
Not all Austrian animal rights activists back the legal challenge. Michael Antolini, president of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said he thinks it's absurd.
"I'm not about to make myself look like a fool" by getting involved, said Antolini, who worries that chimpanzees could gain broader rights, such as copyright protections on their photographs.
But Stibbe, who brings Hiasl sweets and yogurt and watches him draw and clown around by dressing up in knee-high rubber boots, insists he deserves more legal rights "than bricks or apples or potatoes."
"He can be very playful but also thoughtful," she said. "Being with him is like playing with someone who can't talk."
A date for the appeal hasn't been set, but Hiasl's legal team has lined up expert witnesses, including Jane Goodall, the world's foremost observer of chimpanzee behavior.
"When you see Hiasl, he really comes across as a person," Theuer said.
"He has a real personality. It strikes you immediately: This is an individual. You just have to look him in the eye to see that."
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.