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Committee on Petitions Rejects Basic Legal Rights for Great Apes

German politics falls behind international debate on animal ethics


Photo: Colin Goldner

The Committee on Petitions of the German Bundestag rejected the petition "Basic Rights for Great Apes", which aimed at recognising chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orang-utans as legal entities. "We did not expect anything different, because from the traditional Christian point of view the abolition of the sacrosanct dividing line between humans and animals is an unheard of taboo infringement", explained the spokesman of the Giordano Bruno Stiftung, Michael Schmidt-Salomon. And yet, the petition was not in vain, "as it strongly stimulated the social debate on animal ethics".

Schmidt-Salomon submitted the petition, the text of which was drafted in cooperation with various animal rights organisations, to the Petitions Committee of the German Bundestag on 23 April 2014. Two weeks later, on 8 May 2014, he presented it along with the study "Lebenslänglich hinter Gittern - Die Wahrheit über Gorilla, Orang-Utan & Co. in deutschen Zoos" ("Life behind bars - The truth about gorillas, orang-utans & co. in German zoos") by Colin Goldner (head of the German "Great Ape Project" section) at the House of the Federal Press Conference. The press conference, which was attended by Schmidt-Salomon and Goldner as well as by Dieter Birnbacher (chairman of the Central Ethics Commission of the German Medical Association), Eisenhart von Loeper (long-time chairman of the federal association "Menschen für Tierrechte" - "People for Animal Rights"), and Laura Zimprich (chairwoman of the animal and species protection association "animal public"), achieved an enormous, almost exclusively positive media response (weekly newspaper Die ZEIT, for example, dedicated a multi-page cover story to the topic).

Therefore, it was even more surprising that the Petitions Committee of the German Bundestag refused to publish the petition (despite this actually being a standard procedure). The committee even intended to close the petition without further consideration. Michael Schmidt-Salomon vigorously opposed the peculiar reasoning of the committee in June 2014 (see the article "Constitutional Goal Speciesism?"). In their rejection of the petition more than a year later, the Committee on Petitions does not deal with any of the arguments Schmidt-Salomon used to dismantle the committee's argumentation. "That didn't surprise me," the philosopher explained. "In politics, rational arguments have less value than interests. Unfortunately, however, there is no strong lobby for the consideration of evolutionary biological findings in ethics, law, and politics - but a massive lobbying for the maintenance of the religiously influenced view of humanity and the world.

The international debate is further along

Similarly, for Colin Goldner, head of the Great Ape Project in Germany, the "rejection of the petition was not unexpected, even though the justification is not at the forefront of the animal-ethical discourse": "In Argentina they are ahead of this. There, at the end of 2014, a non-human living being, the orang-utan lady SANDRA, who is on display at the Buenos Aires Zoo, was granted basic personal rights by court order. Shortly thereafter, a Supreme Court judge in New York implicitly recognised two chimpanzees held in an experimental laboratory as legal persons. She instructed an Order to Show Cause for the chimpanzees HERCULES and LEO, who have been abused for years at Stony Brook University in New York for biomedical experiments. Even though the court hearing has not yet reached a decision, the New York court order, along with the court ruling in the SANDRA case, already has an enormous signal effect. It indicates a paradigm shift taking place, which is of existential importance for the lives of thousands of great apes still trapped in laboratories, circuses, and zoos today."

Invasive experiments on great apes not categorically prohibited

Goldner was also critical of a passage in the statement justifying the rejection in which it was stated that § 23 of the Animal Welfare Regulation of Germany prohibits the use of primates in animal experiments in general and that exceptions to this are only possible "particularly in the case of great apes in narrowly circumscribed cases": "A closer look at the text of the regulation actually shows that authorisation is by no means only possible in 'narrowly circumscribed cases', but that invasive experiments are still free to continue. It is probably true that since November 2010, invasive experiments on great apes have no longer been permitted in EU states (directive 2010/63/EU), but this does not apply categorically."

"In Germany", says Goldner, "primates, i.e. great apes, may continue to be used according to § 23 of the Animal Protection Laboratory Animal Regulation if the respective experiment serves the following purposes: a) basic research, b) the purpose of preventing, recognising, or treating diseases, suffering, bodily harm, or physical complaints in people which may be life-threatening or lead to a reduction in their physical or mental functional capacity, or the development, production and testing of quality, c) research for the conservation of species, provided there is scientific justification for demonstrating that the purpose of the animal experiment cannot be achieved by the use of animal species other than primates." (see:

Goldner's conclusion: "The ban on invasive experiments on primates (or on great apes, which are by no means particularly valued) can be easily bypassed at any time. Within the EU, an absolute ban applies only in Austria and the Netherlands, but not in Germany. It is true that no great apes have been used in German pharmaceutical and research laboratories for more than 20 years - not for ethical reasons, but for financial reasons (a chimpanzee is much more expensive in 'use' than a macaque).

Giordano Bruno Stiftung continues to support GAP demands

Schmidt-Salomon emphasised that by rejecting the petition, the Giordano Bruno Stiftung could not be discouraged from supporting the demands of the Great Ape Project: "It is time for a fundamental revision of our relationship to non-human animals! The findings of evolutionary biology are so overwhelming that in the long run we can no longer cling to the old anthropocentric thought patterns. Future generations will probably be as stunned by today's speciesism as we are now by the racism and nationalism of past eras".