By WILLIAM J. KOLE, Associated
Fri May 4
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 has lined up expert witnesses,
including Jane Goodall, the world's foremost observer of chimpanzee
"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."
Great Ape Project, http://www.greatapeproject.org
Animal Defenders International, http://www.ad-international.org