In a groundbreaking case at the Mödling district court, just southwest of Vienna, Austria, a judge is to rule whether a chimp deserves a legal guardian. The chimpanzee in question is called Hiasl. But is he actually a chimp or a human, biologically speaking? This is one of the questions that will be addressed during the trial.
Hiasl was only a year old in 1982 when a poacher shot his mother and sold him to an animal trader. He was taken from his home in the Sierra Leone jungle in West Africa, then crated and shipped to Austria, destined for a vivisection lab 30 km East of Vienna. But by 1982, the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) agreement already forbade the import of wild caught chimps, and so Hiasl and 7 other chimps were taken in by customs officers and handed over to an animal sanctuary.
The vivisection lab paid their fine and 4 years later, successfully sued the sanctuary to get Hiasl back as a research tool. 200 animal rights activists intervened to prevent his seizure, and Hiasl has remained safely at the sanctuary ever since. Now, courts are being asked to rule whether he is not just an endangered ape, but a person, entitled by law to a legal guardian.
The trial has been many years in preparation. Austria's best-known primatologist, (who is in charge of the rehabilitation of 44 ex-laboratory chimps released in 2002 by US pharmaceutical company, Baxter, from their biomedical lab in Orth an der Donau), agreed to write an expert report supporting the demand for legal guardianship. Similarly, the world-renowned expert on wild chimps, London University’s Prof. Volker Sommer, dictated a statement by phone directly from the African jungle in support of Great Ape rights. In his view, chimps are not just one of the genus homo; he believes they should be considered as being of the same species as contemporary humans.
Surprisingly, 2 Professors at Vienna University also argued that in their expert opinion, a chimp could be considered a person before the law and, if not, would at least deserve a legal guardian to safeguard his/her interests. This work has even been published in a magazine on contemporary legal issues.
A few weeks ago, the sanctuary, which has been Hiasl’s home for so many years, went bankrupt. In order to ensure that he would not be sold to a zoo, a benefactor donated 5000€ to Hiasl and another named person, on the proviso that they both agree on how the money should be spent. This trick provided Hiasl’s co-beneficiary with the legal loophole to exercise his right to demand a legal guardian for Hiasl. How otherwise could one evaluate how the legacy should be spent?
In an unprecedented move, the unnamed individual applied to the Mödling district court (which has jurisdiction over the area where Hiasl’s home is located), to have a legal guardian appointed. In a 50-page statement, their solicitor summarized the arguments and quoted from the 4 expert statements, which argued on behalf of Hiasl's personhood.
The initial response from the head of the district court was to file for the solicitor’s dismissal from the solicitor registry. Apparently, the attempt to scare him into withdrawing the case did not have the desired effect as the solicitor remained resolute.
On the 20th February, the judge - herself a member of the animal rights group VGT in Austria since 1998 - called the first hearing. She has halted proceedings until documents to prove Hiasl’s identity can be provided. But since Hiasl was abducted illegally from West Africa at a very early age, and seeking asylum in Austria, any such documents cannot be provided. The solicitor running the case is stressing that the law does not see such documents as a necessary prerequisite for a legal guardian to be appointed. The coming weeks will show how this historic case is proceeding. If Hiasl is granted human status, the long-term implications could be far reaching for all other primate species.