To analyse Basel So far, only humans have had a basic right to life and physical integrity. On Sunday, the citizens of Basel will vote on whether monkeys should also be entitled to it.
How should humans treat animals? Do animals have dignity? To what extent should they be given rights? These ethical questions are attracting increasing attention in a public that is grappling more intensively than before with its responsibility for the future of life on this planet. After all, since 2002, animal protection has been enshrined in the Basic Law as a state goal. Critics, however, object that to date there has been a lack of concrete design. The German Animal Welfare Association, for example, warns that too little has changed in the fundamental abuses in factory farming, in research, in zoos or in the circus. In the Swiss canton of Basel-Stadt, an initiative now wants to set an example: the population can decide on Sunday whether at least the genetically closest relatives of humans should have rights similar to these: monkeys. And all of them.
It is the first vote of this kind ever and is already unleashing considerable political momentum, regardless of its outcome and possible practical implications. The topic is widely discussed. In this respect, the animal rights organization behind it, Sentience Politics, has already achieved an important milestone. A good 3,000 signatures were collected so that 110,000 voters could decide on an amendment to the canton’s constitution. The aim is to add a passage according to which non-human primates are granted the right to life and to physical and mental integrity.
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The arguments of the activists: Great apes are not called that for nothing. They and their peers love, mourn, are self-aware, use tools, are social, and even have a sense of humor. It was only recently read that scientists in Osnabrück had discovered that chimpanzees treat wounds with crushed insects, which have an anti-inflammatory effect. On the other hand, they kill their kind and can wage wars.
But if monkeys are so similar to humans, according to animal rights activists, why shouldn’t they be given the same legal protection? So no more experiments on all primates and no more euthanizing sick members of the same species. In the future, biologists, veterinarians and animal keepers will no longer be able to make decisions about the well-being of animals alone, but rather act as a kind of legal advisor.
Resistance to this is not only felt among zoologists. Critics of the initiative, which only applies to publicly owned monkeys, point out that Basel-Stadt does not keep any monkeys itself. The background to this restriction is a ruling by the Federal Supreme Court in Lausanne, according to which a canton may enact fundamental rights that go beyond the minimum standards enshrined in the Federal Constitution and the European Commission on Human Rights. However, these only apply in cantonal institutions. The “Zolli”, the traditional Basel zoo, on the other hand, is organized under private law as a public limited company. The local pharmaceutical industry has not carried out any experiments with primates for years. Nevertheless, representatives of Roche and Novartis warn of obstacles to new trials in the service of research. Concerns about the symbolic power of the initiative are far greater than concerns about the direct impact of a vote.
Wolfgang Dreßen also has considerable concerns in this case. The director of the Krefeld Zoo has known how emotional the topic of animal husbandry is in this country, not only since the fire in the monkey house of his zoo and the subsequent discussion about a new more species-appropriate enclosure. Nevertheless: “From my point of view as a zoologist and behavioral scientist, it is clear that rights and obligations do not exist in the natural social systems of primates – not even in the great apes, which are so closely related,” said Dreßen in an interview with our editors. “Fundamental rights are regulations made by people for human society. Just because there is a genetic proximity and similarities in the social and emotional lives of great apes and humans in particular, this is not an argument – neither biologically nor animal-ethically – to transfer basic human rights to primates. Not to mention if with rights came duties for a primacy, as is common in human cultures.”
Although man is not descended from apes, the relationship between the two is undisputed. Both have a common ancestor who lived about five to six million years ago, from which later humans and their closest species, like the Neanderthals but now extinct, and various families of great apes later developed separately. They include orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. Nonetheless, they and man form the hominid family scientifically today. This in turn belongs to the order of primates, which includes around 400 species of monkeys.
The latest research results show how small the genetic gap is: In fact, the difference between humans and chimpanzees is just 1.5 percent. In the genome of human women and human men, on the other hand, it can be up to four percent. This means that in some human couples, the male may be more genetically similar to a male chimpanzee than his wife—and she may be more genetically similar to a female chimpanzee than her husband.
Which doesn’t change the fact that even 1.5 percent can make a huge difference – including in relation to the brain: the human brain is three times the size of that of the chimpanzee. Great apes cannot even begin to pass on acquired knowledge to subsequent generations to the same extent as humans, they have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, every time.
Do guaranteed fundamental rights make it easier for monkeys to live in zoos? Wolfgang Dreßen remains skeptical: “The scientifically managed zoos worldwide have a code for keeping wild animals: They have a duty to optimally care for their animals and always put their well-being first. Research on great apes on intelligence, self-confidence and the ability to abstract, right through to the beginnings of reason will certainly bring new insights in the coming years that will further optimize attitudes. However, the ability to reflect morally on deeds remains a unique selling point of humans.” Transferring their value structure to animals remains a “humanizing approach by certain animal rights activists and so-called animal rights activists, which I, as a scientist, strictly reject”.
Paragraph 90 of the Civil Code states: “Animals are not things.” Legally, however, they are still treated as things. The constitutional court of the canton of Basel-Stadt, which reviewed the admissibility of the primate initiative, struck a new note in its judgment to: “With the subjectivization of animal rights, a fundamentally new legal development is being put up for discussion, which would have a considerable symbolic meaning with an impulse effect.”