Friday, June 9, 2006

BRUSSELS — Spain could soon become the first country in the world to give chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and other great apes some of the fundamental rights granted to human beings with a law being proposed by members of the ruling Socialist coalition.

The law would eliminate the concept of “ownership” for great apes, instead placing them under the “moral guardianship” of the state, much as is the case for children in care, the severely handicapped and those in comas, said the lawmaker behind the project, Francisco Garrido.

Great apes held in Spanish zoos would be moved to state-built sanctuaries, unless there was a risk that moving them would harm their emotional welfare, he said.

The law would also make it a criminal offense to mistreat or kill a great ape, except in cases of self-defense or medical euthanasia. As a first step, Mr. Garrido, a Green member from Seville who sits with the Socialists, will propose a resolution on the rights of great apes before parliament’s environment committee at the end of this month. He expects the committee to approve the resolution, which already has received the public support of ministers.

Mr. Garrido said he was confident that either the government, or the ruling Socialist majority, would introduce a Great Apes Law after the summer recess.

The Roman Catholic Church has expressed concerns about his resolution.

The archbishop of Pamplona and Tudela, Fernando Sebastian, has said that only a “ridiculous or distorted society” could propose such a law.

“We don’t give rights to some people — such as unborn children, human embryos, and we are going to give them to apes,” the archbishop said.

Amnesty International’s Spanish branch has also expressed concerns, saying that humans have yet to see their rights fully guaranteed. A senior member of the Spanish opposition Partido Popular, Arturo Esteban, called the proposal an “act of moral poverty.”

The proposal has been front page news since parliament heard testimony from members of the Great Ape Project (GAP), a Seattle-based activist group that campaigns for the creation of a “community of equals” in which humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans would all have three fundamental rights: the right to life, to freedom, and to protection from torture.

Their “declaration” calls for great apes to be kept locked up only when they are a threat to the community, and then only with a right of appeal to the courts, with representation by a lawyer.

Mr. Garrido’s parliamentary resolution would explicitly endorse the approach of the GAP, and would call on the state to use its voting membership of international forums and organizations to protect great apes from “mistreatment, slavery, death and extinction.”

Pedro Pozas, the secretary-general of the Spanish branch of the GAP, said animals reared in captivity might remain in zoos, even after the law’s passage, “provided that they are kept in good conditions, with a habitat adapted to their conditions and needs.”

Mr. Pozas criticized the trade and exchange of apes among zoos and breeding centers. “To move a baby ape is to split up a family. They have feelings, they can feel sad, and they have the capacity for love. If a zoo has no room for new births, it would be better to sterilize the females.”

In 1999, New Zealand passed an animal welfare act stating that research, testing or teaching involving the use of a great ape requires government approval, and a finding that “any likely benefits are not outweighed by harm to the great ape.” Britain has also banned medical experimentation on great apes.

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