Spain is about to take the world into uncharted legal territory. Later this month, a resolution is going before parliament which, if passed as expected, will give a set of rights to chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans. These great apes will then be regarded in Spanish law as "legal persons."
It will be of historic significance, the first time that any civilization has recognized the special status of another species and the need to protect it not only from extinction but also from individual abuse. Spain will be obliged to introduce new laws protecting the great apes, putting pressure on other European countries to follow suit, and will undertake to organize a forum of rich nations to fund the protection of the great apes in their natural habitat.
The resolution is based on the work of the Great Ape Project, which was founded in 1993 by philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri. It urges the government in Spain to take the necessary measures in international forums and organizations to protect great apes from maltreatment, slavery, torture, death and extinction.
The central idea of the project is that the great apes share more than just DNA with humans. There is an enormous amount of data collected by scientists, including Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey and Birute Galdikas, that the great apes are intelligent beings with strong emotions that often resemble our own.
Singer and Cavalieri have presented a radical vision that has on occasion been widely misinterpreted. This is not a call for human rights to be accorded to the great apes, they say, and it will not result in the release of captive great apes into the wild. It is rather a recognition of their undeniable similarity to humans and a rejection of the notion that these animals can be considered property, with no more legal significance than an item of furniture.
"There is no sound moral reason why possession of basic rights should be limited to members of a particular species," Singer said.
Spain is on the surface an unlikely country to be taking such a radical step towards recognizing the rights of animals -- after all, bull fighting is still considered a sport. Some philosophers believe that a deadly attack on humans might have been one of the motivations behind its move to recognize the rights of apes.
The Madrid bombings on March 11, 2004, which killed 192 people and injured more than 2,000, they say, forced a radical rethink within society.