An Austrian judge turned down a request this week to appoint a woman as legal guardian of a chimpanzee.
The decision is a blow to a growing movement in Europe attempting to give apes some of the legal rights of humans, such as protection from being owned. But proponents of ape rights say they will appeal the decision and continue fighting for the cause elsewhere in Europe. In Spain, for example, they are pushing for a national law that would extend some human rights to apes.
Paula Casal, a vice-president of the Great Ape Project branch in Spain, says the Spanish law, first proposed a year ago, might finally be put to a vote soon in parliament. "After that battle is won, then we will have momentum to start organizing groups in other countries to do the same," said Casal, a philosopher at the University of Reading, UK.
The goal of the Great Ape Project is to extend basic human rights to apes, such as the right to life, protection of individual liberty and prohibition of torture.
Apes are no longer used in most western nations for research, with the United States being a major exception. New Zealand passed an ape rights law in 1999, backed by the Great Ape Project, which prohibits using apes in any experiments that would benefit humans.
The proposed Spanish law goes beyond this, additionally banning private ownership of apes, or their use for employment or entertainment. The state would be responsible for putting the more then 200 apes registered in Spain in sanctuaries. Furthermore, as written it would require the Spanish government to work towards convening an international forum of developed and developing nations on the issue of protecting the rights of great apes.
Before filing the lawsuit, Balluch consulted with international experts and ape supporters such as Jane Goodall and US animal rights lawyer/author Stephen Wise. They chose the legal-guardian strategy because it would mean Hiasl could not be sold, Balluch says. And a lawsuit could then be filed on Hiasl's behalf against the laboratory that tried to import him, in order to obtain support payments. "Hiasl is now dependent on the goodwill of others," Balluch says. "If he were still in the west African jungle, he would not need money. It was the company that brought him here and started this mess."
In a trustee court hearing on 24 April, the judge denied the request. She said that if she appointed a legal guardian for a chimp, then this might create the public perception that humans with court-appointed legal guardians are at the same level as animals.
Balluch says his group will appeal the decision to a higher district court. He notes that many other chimps from the same research laboratory are in a sanctuary north of Vienna. Donations for that sanctuary are drying up, Balluch says. If Hiasl eventually wins the right to guardianship, then Balluch says he "would not hesitate to expand that to the 44 chimps north of Vienna."