A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Chimps Cooking … and Starving


How do you put together these three items in the latest news about chimpanzees?

  • For the first time ever, a judge in the United States orders a research facility into court in New York City to explain what legal right it has, if any, to be holding a pair of chimpanzees in captivity and conducting medical experiments on them.
  • At the same time, just a few blocks uptown, the New York Blood Center, which has been using 66 captive chimpanzees in a laboratory in Liberia for biomedical research, decides to stop paying for their care. The chimps now face starvation.
  • And scientists at Harvard and Yale publish a paper demonstrating that chimpanzees understand the concept of cooking and will even hold back on eating a piece of raw food in order to cook it first.

The fact that chimpanzees understand the concept of cooking is a big deal when it comes to our understanding of their cognitive powers. As one of the authors of the paper put it:

Many primate species, including chimpanzees, have difficulty giving up food already in their possession, and show limitations in their self-control when faced with food.

(That’s a nice way of reminding us human apes that we, too, can’t resist the urge to sample the cookie dough rather than wait for the finished product.)

The two scientists invented a kind of “magic cooking device”, as they put it, that apparently turns a slice of raw sweet potato into a cooked piece. So when a chimpanzee placed a raw piece into the device and the researcher shook it, out would come an identical cooked piece. Once the chimps understood that the magic device turned raw food into cooked food, they would take the raw slice that was offered to them, but then, rather than eating it, they would take it over to the person with the device to have it “cooked”.

The study demonstrates that chimpanzees have the “causal understanding they would need” to make the leap to cooking. And this understanding involves highly complex cognition, including patience, planning, imagining the future, and sacrificing immediate gratification for something better in the future.

The New York Blood Center said it “never had any obligation to care for the chimps.”The study was widely reported. And so was the news, the following day, that chimpanzees who had been taken from the wild, kept in captivity for more than 60 years, and used in studies of hepatitis and other blood diseases were now being abandoned by the New York Blood Center (NYBC).

A spokesperson for the center simply blamed the Liberian government and said that the NYBC “never had any obligation to care for the chimps, contractual or otherwise.”

Brian Hare, an anthropologist and primatologist at Duke University, started a petition to urge people to contact the New York Blood Center:

After using and profiting from them for decades, NYBC decided the chimps were no longer needed for future research and retired them to small islands near the lab. NYBC publicly proclaimed their commitment to the lifetime care of the chimpanzees, but walked away from their ethical responsibility when they stopped all funding for the chimpanzees’ care.

“Never, ever have I seen anything even remotely as disgusting as this,” he told reporters.

Almost every week, we learn more about the cognitive abilities of our closest cousins. And yet it remains entirely legal to buy and sell them, experiment on them, dress them up in bow ties and funny hats on TV and at the circus, and, in this latest horror story, just walk away and abandon them.

In a Manhattan supreme court, last week, to determine whether two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, who are in captivity at Stony Brook University for use in medical research, should be granted a writ of habeas corpus and released to a sanctuary, attorney Steven M. Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project faced off against New York Assistant Attorney General Christopher Coulston. Coulston argued that animal welfare laws offer sufficient protection to chimpanzees, and that giving them the legal right not to be imprisoned was an absurd idea that would essentially lead to legal chaos in the way we humans relate to our fellow animals. Basic rights to bodily liberty should not depend arbitrarily on your species any more than they should depend on your gender or your color.

The judge has yet to rule on this lawsuit, the third of its kind that’s been brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project. And all three of these suits are now working their way through the New York State legal system. But whatever the specific outcome of any of them, it’s becoming glaringly obvious that the exploitation of these autonomous, cognitively complex beings is way beyond having reached its expiration date.

The New York Blood Center needs to get a grip on itself and take some responsibility for the lives it has wrecked.

The courts need to recognize that basic rights to bodily liberty should not depend arbitrarily on your species any more than they should depend on your gender or your color.

And the animal protection community needs to get with the program and give its full support to the cause of breaking down the legal wall that separates all humans from all other kinds of animals.

Talking about “animal rights” is meaningless until the first nonhuman animal is actually recognized as having the fundamental legal right to his or her own life.