Excerpt from Drawing the Line - Science and the Case for Animal Rights by Steven M. Wise

In a Ugandan Rain Forest

If humans are entitled to fundamental rights, why not animals? In our considered opinion, legal rights shall not be the exclusive preserve of the humans which has to be extended beyond people thereby dismantling the thick legal wall with humans all on one side and all non-humans on the other side. While the law currently protects wild life and endangered species from extinction, animals are denied rights, an anachronism which must necessarily change.

N. R. Nair v. UOI (Kerala High Court of India, June 6, 2000)

At 6:30 A.M. on June 5, it is scarcely light just fifteen minutes north of the Equator. The rising sun slowly illuminates the ice that tips the massive peaks of Uganda's Ruwenzori Mountains, twenty-five miles east of where I stand. Ptolemy called them the Mountains of the Moon. Ruwenzori National Park borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo; in the summer of 2001, the park is closed. War has ravaged much of the land that runs a thousand miles to the west, Uganda helping to overthrow the present government, which, in turn, overthrew the previous government five years ago. But that's not why the park is closed. Fundamentalist Muslim rebels of the Allied Democratic Front are camped in ravines of the Mountains of the Moon because they are trying to overthrow the Ugandan government, which overthrew its predecessor fifteen years ago. On the drive west, I picked up copies of several Kampalan newspapers. One contained a radio interview with a Muslim rebel commander who was asked why his troops have indiscriminately slaughtered hundreds of Ugandans. He never answered. A couple of pages later I scanned a three-day-old warning from the United States embassy against visiting the area where I was reading the newspaper. Yesterday, I read about a firefight between Ugandan soldiers and rebels trying to escape back to the Mountains of the Moon.

     I was leaning against an ebony tree, beginning the third day of a five-day field seminar graciously provided by Richard Wrangham, one of the world's great experts on chimpanzees and, it so happens, the great-great-great-grandson of the famous English abolitionist William Wilberforce. My wife, two independent Vermont filmmakers, Paul Garstki and Donna Thomas, Wrangham, and I were in Kanywara in the Kibale National Forest at the far western end of Uganda. It was our second dawn together.

     The first morning, we had risen at 4:30 to "unnest" chimpanzees. That meant following, by flashlight, a native Ugandan tracker, Donor Muhangyi, and a Spanish graduate student, Maria Llorente, who was interested in chimpanzee nestings.

     "Watch where you step!"

      Terrified of snakes, I played the beam along the forest floor. There was no snake. Instead, I was trespassing in the beanfield that some determined villager had hacked from the steep hillside in what felt to be the middle of a black nowhere.

      Donor and Maria finally halted in the pitch dark and said we had reached the place where, the evening before, they had watched chimpanzees ascend and weave their night nests in the trees. We settled onto black plastic garbage bags to protect against the damp ground and silently waited for the chimpanzees to wake. And waited and waited. The long silence was broken only by Wrangham's stage whispers into the blackness.
     "Don't point at the chimpanzees. It's not polite."
     "Don't eat in front of the chimpanzees. We don't want them to associate us with food."
     The apes were sleeping unconscionably late.
     "Bunch together. We'll look like a smaller group."
     "And if you have to go to the bathroom and leave something solid, go off the trail and dig a hole."

     An hour later than usual, Big Brown, a large male, finally peered over the lip of his nest.
Soon, all the chimpanzees were up and out, moving too fast for us to follow. Now in his seventeenth field season of studying the Kibale chimpanzees, Wrangham had begun to understand how they thought. He decided that for breakfast, some of them would head to an old fig tree at the edge of the forest, so we hurried to the tree along the narrow paths Wrangham's team keeps open. When we arrived, sure enough, Big Brown was high in the fig tree, along with his closest ally. No one else showed.

     That second morning, we didn't unnest the chimpanzees because they had built their nightly nests in a part of the rain forest nearly impenetrable to humans. Instead, we made for another species of fig tree, its fruit just ripening, to which Wrangham believed the chimpanzees would probably head when they woke up. And that's what they did.

     We heard them coming a long way off, screaming, hooting, and drumming on trees. Wrangham told us to bunch together and lower ourselves to appear fewer and less threatening. Suddenly, five males burst into view as they traveled single file along a path that crossed almost in front of us. Each one hesitated when he spotted us, looked us up and down, then hurled himself up into the fig tree.

     "That was the core of the male power," Wrangham said.
      Eventually, gorged on figs, they took off, with us in slow pursuit through the tangled vegetation and along the narrow trails. By the time we caught up with them, they had killed and eaten two red colobus monkeys and were taking turns dragging the remnants of the carcasses along the ground and into the trees.
     "How did the chimpanzees catch them?" I asked Wrangham, for the lithe monkeys were zipping through the trees.
     "Sometimes," he said, "by pulling their tails."

     Then the chimpanzees were off. And so were we. After five exhausting hours, we struck a fork in the trail and, worn out, quit the pursuit. We decided to rest and refresh ourselves at the edge of the left fork before heading back to camp. Three minutes later, a surprised chimpanzee stumbled onto our group. We looked at him. He looked at us, then took the right fork and disappeared. Wrangham suspected he had been trailing us because he knew we were trailing other chimpanzees and would lead him to them.

     Developmental and comparative psychologist Michael Tomasello, who has spent most of two decades studying apes, finds chimpanzees "very sophisticated creatures cognitively." A mountain of evidence supports him. Chimpanzees are probably self-conscious. They use insight, not just trial and error, to solve problems. They have complex mental representations, understand cause and effect, imitate, and cooperate. They compare objects and relationships between objects. They use and make tools. Given appropriate opportunity and motivation, they may teach, deceive, self-medicate, and empathize. They transmit culture between generations.

     Captives raised nearly as human have learned thousands of English words at the sophisticated level of a human three-year-old and understand that word order is vital to sentence meaning. In the manner of a human two-year-old they produce hundreds of words and use simple grammar. They point and mentally share the world with humans and other apes. They use symbols in play. They count, perhaps to ten, and add simple numbers and the occasional fraction.

     They remember. Ai, a symbol-using chimpanzee, remembers five numbers and their positions for twenty seconds after they disappear from a computer monitor-as good a result, or better, than most human preschoolers. Thirty-four times over nine months, Panzee, a language-trained chimpanzee, watched as objects she desired were hidden outside her enclosure. To obtain them, she had to recruit uninformed humans to help. Up to three days later, Panzee would point toward a hiding place, gesture "HIDE," pant or vocalize while pointing, or use one of 256 abstract keyboard symbols to steer the human where she wanted.

     Chimpanzees flourish in rough-and-tumble societies so intensely political and devious they are dubbed "Machiavellian." Their "political intelligence" allows them to make "complicated assessments of power situations," says anthropologist Christopher Boehm. In four chimpanzee societies, two captive, two wild, male and female chimpanzees formed coalitions to subdue the despotic power of an alpha male. Boehm says this action demands such "substantial cognitive ability" that it would be "foolish to deny intentionality where the goal is so unambiguous and the actors are obviously collaborating. It would seem that both wild and captive chimpanzees are able to arrive at and essentially agree upon political strategies, sometimes long-term ones, and shape their societies on that basis."

Wrangham is the thesis adviser of a talented young Harvard anthropology graduate student named Brian Hare, who has spent time in Kibale and understands the natural behavior of chimpanzees. Over lunch in Harvard Square months before, Wrangham told me that Hare has shown that chimpanzees possess elements of a theory of mind of other chimpanzees (the ability to understand and predict another chimpanzee's behavior by attributing mental states).

     Hare confirmed what Wrangham told me. With Tomasello and his colleague, Josep Call, Hare devised a way to test whether chimpanzees know what other chimpanzees see and know by exploiting the natural preference of subordinate chimpanzees to avoid competing for food with dominant chimpanzees. When subordinates saw that dominants could see food they could see, they surrendered it to the dominants. But when they saw that a dominant could not see food they could see, they surreptitiously retrieved it, waited until the dominant had gone before consuming it, and sometimes even gave a false signal that kept the dominant away. Hare thought the most interesting finding was that when subordinate chimpanzees in one test became dominants in another test, they acted in the way "you would predict if they are perspective-taking. As dominants they want to monopolize all the food and so they take the 'at risk' piece of food first. Then they take the safely hidden piece." In a second series of experiments, he and his colleagues asked whether chimpanzees know what other chimpanzees know, tested whether one chimpanzee could know what another had, or had not, recently seen, and found they did.

     Back to camp. Wrangham opened a box and produced a chimpanzee's "doll." This was one of several "dolls" that Wrangham had acquired since he first saw Kakama playing with a "doll" years ago. Kakama was an eight-year-old whose mother was pregnant when Wrangham spotted him straddling a small log perhaps half his height. For the rest of that morning, Kakama bumped the log behind him, dragged it onto tree nests, played with it in his nest the way a mother would play with a baby, retrieved it when it tumbled thirty feet to the ground, balanced it on his neck, used it as a walking stick, and in general, Wrangham says, "carried that piece of wood in every way imaginable." But Wrangham wasn't able to retrieve the log-doll and told no one what he had seen. Four months later, two of Wrangham's field assistants spotted Kakama doing the same thing and watched for three hours. When he had finished playing, the assistants snatched the log away and labeled it "Kakama's Toy Baby." That was the doll Wrangham showed me. He said they had spotted other chimpanzees playing with other logs in the same way. He had those logs neatly labeled, and filed away, too.

     What was an American lawyer doing unnesting chimpanzees in the black predawn of the Kibale mountains? Or examining chimpanzee dolls near where they had been dropped in the forest? Or hurrying along narrow wooded paths to glimpse chimpanzees on the hunt for monkeys? In an earlier book, Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals, I argued that, as the common law stands, normal adult chimpanzees are entitled to basic legal rights because of certain advanced mental abilities they possess. But I never had the privilege of seeing them in the wild, only captive in laboratories and zoos. Now I could engage in a five-day seminar on chimpanzee behavior and cognition conducted by an expert and confirm for myself that chimpanzees possessed these abilities.

     We will look beyond chimpanzees to test the eligibility of normal adult members of seven other species to basic legal rights. I argue that mental abilities that add up to "practical autonomy" are sufficient to entitle any being to basic legal rights. The question is who has them? We'll see how my son, Christopher, mentally developed from an infant not entitled to rights (at least on the ground of autonomy) because of his lack of mental abilities to an entitled child enjoying practical autonomy. Then it's on to nonhuman animals, whom we will compare to Christopher whenever possible.

     I didn't have to cross an ocean to meet some of these animals. We'll look, surprisingly, at honeybees, whose brains are a millionth the size of ours, and learn about their unexpectedly complex mental abilities. We'll meet Alex, an African Grey parrot living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Alex has demonstrated extraordinary mental abilities for an animal with a walnut-sized brain. He can understand, even speak, English words taught him by MIT professor Irene Pepperberg. We'll encounter Marbury, my family dog. He is a member of a species whose mental abilities, again surprisingly for "man's best friend," we have just begun to study formally. We have already learned that dogs read human beings like a book.

     I flew to Kenya in search of Echo, an African elephant, and other elephants who live in Amboseli National Park. We'll see that elephants intensely experience a wide variety of emotions, may be self-conscious, have long and accurate memories, communicate, and solve problems. Closer to home, I visited Chantek, a signing orangutan, at his home in Zoo Atlanta. Chantek deceives, pretends, and uses a simple sign language of one hundred and fifty signs, marked by a rudimentary grammar. I called on Koko, a world-famous lowland gorilla, at her home near San Francisco, California. Koko has repeatedly scored between 70 and 95 on standard human child intelligence tests, routinely uses hundreds of signs to communicate, and understands thousands of English words. Both Chantek and Koko easily pass the standard test for self-awareness. Occasionally a door did not open. I was unable to obtain permission to meet Phoenix and Ake, two Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins, from Louis Herman, the professor who has taught them a simple artificial language at Kewalo Basin in Honolulu, Hawaii.

     I really wanted to speak to Herman, for it isn't just the nonhuman animals I met who make this book what it is but the scientists who have spent years working with them; and not just Herman but Pepperberg, who has patiently probed Alex's mind for twenty-five years, Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole, who know Echo and her family intimately, Lyn Miles and Penny Patterson, who raised and taught Chantek and Koko sign language from her earliest infancy, and Brian Hare, who is just begining to tell us what dogs might think. A glance at the acknowledgments will reveal that I have communicated by letter, e-mail, telephone, and often face-to-face with nearly five dozen of the world's foremost experts in human, ape, dolphin, parrot, dog, elephant, and honeybee cognition, from four continents: Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. What you will read about the minds of the animals we meet is a product of these scientists' generous teaching and criticisms.

     Based on the present state of scientific knowledge about the minds of these animals, I will argue that the case for legal rights for some of them is overwhelming; for others, currently not. But each determination will be saturated in the highest legal values and principles, free of the pervasive legal bias against nonhuman animals, and deeply anchored in scientific fact. To deny the most deserving amongst nonhuman animals basic rights is arbitrary, biased, and therefore unjust. It undermines, and finally destroys, every rationale for basic human rights as well. And states without justice, wrote St. Augustine, are nothing but robber bands.

Reprinted with Permission by Perseus Publishing, A Member of the Perseus Books Group -- Copyright © 2002