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Planet of the Apes Has Arrived, and It Is Spain

Planet of the Apes Has Arrived, and It Is Spain

Planet of the Apes Has Arrived, and It Is Spain
An editorial
Nikolas Kozloff, special to
July 3, 2008

Visiting Spain’s Barcelona zoo as a child, I was greeted to a memorable sight. In one of the cages sat a gorilla, but not just any primate. I had come face to face with the legendary albino ape “Little Snowflake.” Because of Snowflake’s white coat, when I looked at him I felt like I was peering into the eyes of a wizened old man. The only difference was that Snowflake’s eyes were pink!

Snowflake (known as Copito de Nieve in Spanish) had a small outside enclosure where he could romp and play with several female apes as well as his offspring which, unlike him, were non-albino. At least the apes had a place to stretch their legs outside, though unfortunately the enclosure was surrounded by concrete walls. There were no trees, just a couple of structures with metal bars from which Snowflake and his new family could hang from.

Though Snowflake was a source of endless fascination for thousands of Spanish children, few paused to consider the ape’s tragic story and the deplorable circumstances surrounding his capture. In 1966, a local farmer in Equatorial Guinea (at the time a Spanish colony) saw Snowflake outside his village and killed all the rest of the poor ape’s family, who were charcoal in color. Terrorized, Snowflake clung to his mother’s neck and buried his head in her fur. Copito, the only albino gorilla known to man, was later purchased by a Catalan primatologist, Jordi Sabater.

Snowflake as a juvenile. Courtesy of The Barcelona Zoo

In Barcelona, Snowflake became a national sensation. Mentioned in tourist guides and put on postcards, he became a popular mascot for Barcelona. During his life at the zoo, Copito fathered 22 offspring (6 survived to adulthood) with three females, and lived to see his grandchildren. In 2001 he began to suffer from a rare form of skin cancer, possibly related to his albinism. Thousands visited the zoo to say goodbye to Copito before he was finally euthanized in November, 2003. Though Copito lived longer than the average Western Lowland Gorilla, this can hardly make up for the substandard living conditions at the zoo not to mention the horrific story of his capture.

A Legal Breakthrough

Fortunately, Spain is now seeking to make amends for its historic lack of regard toward primates. Last week, the country’s parliament voiced its support for the rights of great apes (which include gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans) to life and freedom. It’s the first time any national legislature has called for such rights for non-humans and represents a great breakthrough. “This is a historic day in the struggle for animal rights and in defense of our evolutionary comrades, which will doubtless go down in the history of humanity,” said Pedro Pozas, an animal rights advocate.

Pozas is the Spanish director of the Great Apes Project, a Seattle-based organization which started up in 1993. The group was founded by philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri, who argued that that “non-human hominids” like chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos should enjoy the right to life, freedom and not to be tortured. Pozas and his colleagues have long argued that great apes share more than genetically similar DNA with their human counterparts. According to the organization’s own Web site, “They [apes] enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness. They share the intellectual capacity to create and use tools, learn and teach other languages. They remember their past and plan for their future.” Such claims have been bolstered by an enormous amount of data collected by scientists such as Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey and Birute Galdikas.

Wild silverback gorilla in Gabon.

The new resolutions have cross-party, majority support in parliament and are expected to become law. The government therefore is now committed to update the statute book within a year to outlaw harmful experiments on apes in Spain. “We have no knowledge of great apes being used in experiments in Spain, but there is currently no law preventing that from happening,” Pozas remarked. Keeping apes for circuses, television commercials or filming will be forbidden and breaking the new laws will become an offence under Spain’s penal code. Though keeping Spain’s estimated 315 apes in zoos will still be legal, conditions will have to improve in many facilities in order to comply with the new law. Animal rights activists claim that 70 per cent of apes in Spanish zoos currently live in sub-human conditions.

The political momentum for ape legislation has been building for some time. In 2007 the Spanish Balearic Islands, a popular tourist destination located in the western Mediterranean, approved a similar resolution to grant legal rights to great apes. The Balearic legislation did not provide “human rights” to apes, though it did recognize basic legal protections supported by biological and scientific evidence that great apes, like human children, experience an emotional and intellectual conscience similar to that of human children. By declaring its support for fundamental rights for great apes, the Balearic Parliament established an important legal precedent that primates were conscious, self-aware beings that should not be tortured, abused and neglected.

Both legislative efforts are significant in that they represent an important step toward future governmental support for great apes worldwide. Under most government structures, legal rights are the only way to insure that non-human great apes are free from torture, unnecessary death and capture; simple “animal protection” laws are not enough.

Why Spain?

On the face of it, Spain is hardly the first place in the world that one would expect to take up breakthrough animal rights legislation. In the eighteenth century the Enlightenment didn’t have much of an ideological impact upon Spain. In the early nineteenth century, when Napoleon invaded the Iberian nation, French forces were not greeted as liberators but as oppressors. In the twentieth century Spain saw the emergence of a strong left political movement but it was quickly liquidated by the fascist general Francisco Franco. For forty years, Spaniards lived under military dictatorship and the stultifying and backward influence of the Catholic Church. Conservative rule continued even after the country returned to democracy: until recently, Spain was governed by José María Aznar who had reorganized Spanish conservatives into the People’s Party (Partido Popular or PP). Aznar’s grandfather served as Franco’s ambassador to Morocco and the United Nations and his father was a pro-Franco journalist. Despite robust public opposition to the war in Iraq, Aznar supported Bush’s 2003 invasion by contributing 1,300 Spanish peacekeeping troops. In part the PP owed its popularity due to its tough stand on terrorism and the Basque separatist group ETA.

Then, three days prior to the March, 2004 presidential election bombings of Madrid commuter trains killed 201 people and injured 1,500. The PP hastily blamed ETA for the bombings but as suspicions grew of al Qaeda involvement Aznar’s party suffered. Some analysts argued that the PP held some responsibility for the Madrid bombings because it sent troops to Iraq and acquiesced in U.S. foreign policy. Thousands poured out on to the streets to protest the PP. Jorge Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (the leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE or Spanish Socialists’ Workers Party) pulled off an incredible upset electoral victory.

The socialists quickly shifted away from the strongly pro-U.S. focus of the PP. Zapatero described Spain’s participation in the Iraq war as “a total error.” In May, two months after his electoral victory, Zapatero withdrew Spanish troops. In opposing the Bush White House, Zapatero shared some ideological affinity with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela (for more on these questions see my recent book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left).

You can’t really understand the rise of Zapatero however in purely political terms. Today, Spain is in the midst of tremendous cultural ferment and the socialists are taking on once sacrosanct institutions like the Catholic Church with a vengeance. Indeed, it might be said that Spain is presently one of the most socially dynamic and politically progressive countries in Europe. In short order, Zapatero has legalized gay marriage, reduced the influence of the Catholic Church in education and set up an Equality Ministry. That’s saying a lot, in light of the fact that Spain only legalized divorce in the 1980s.

Catholics and Socialists Spar over Bullfighting

Even before parliament voted over the ape question, another controversy of sorts had erupted over bullfighting. Public appetite for this cruel blood sport has long been on the decline, but that hasn’t stopped the Spanish government from heavily subsidizing the industry. Over 550 million Euros of Spanish taxpayer money is provided to the bullfighting industry per year, even though Spanish state broadcaster RTVE stopped live coverage of bullfights in August 2007 because the blood sport was judged too violent for children.

Recent Gallup polls indicate that 72 per cent of Spaniards lack interest in bullfighting and just 7 per cent say they are very interested. In Catalonia more than 80 per cent of the population shares no interest at all. In 2007, anti-bullfighting campaigners rejoiced when RTVE stopped live coverage of this barbaric “sport.” Theo Oberhuber, a coordinator of Ecologists in Action, which had been campaigning for a total ban, said: “This is not a total victory but it opens the door to the beginning of the end. We are very pleased.”

Though the Spanish public wants to turn the page on its brutal and backward past, the forces of reaction have lined up against the animal rights lobby. Predictably, it has been the PP which has taken up the gauntlet. The conservative party of Aznar has attacked RTVE’s new programming policy, while Zapatero is thought to disapprove of bullfighting. The Spanish Prime Minister has never made his views publicly known but his Environment Minister Cristina Narbona has said that Spain should stage bullfights without killing the animals.

Debating Apes’ Rights

With the public mood increasingly turning hostile against blood sport, animal rights activists grew more optimistic about their future prospects. Campaigners may have benefited from some curious political timing: some philosophers believed that the deadly Madrid bombings in March, 2004 forced a radical rethink within society. “The Madrid bombing made many people think about the consequences of selfishly letting one’s compatriots act wrongly,” remarked philosopher Paula Casal, Executive Director of the Great Ape Project. “(Spain’s) new president, (José Luis Rodríguez) Zapatero, counts on passionate support for all his radical political changes, and determination to tackle even our oldest vices,” she added.

Once again it was members of the PP, now backed by the Catholic Church, which came out most vociferously against the idea of extending legal protections to apes. The archbishop of Pamplona and Tudela, Fernando Sebastián, said that only a “ridiculous or distorted society” could propose such legislation. “We don’t give rights to some people — such as unborn children,

human embryos, and we are going to give them to apes,” the archbishop remarked. The Church was reportedly concerned about the new law because the measure would undermine an anthropocentric world view and thereby call into question the special status of human beings. Meanwhile the PP complained that the resolution sought to give animals the same rights as humans — something that the Socialist Government has denied. A senior PP member, Arturo Esteban, called the proposal an “act of moral poverty.”

Reactions to the parliamentary vote have been mixed. Many Spaniards were perplexed that the country should consider apes a priority when the economy is slowing sharply and Spain has been rocked by violent fuel protests. Others thought it was a strange decision, given that Spain has no wild apes of its own. Some critics have justifiably questioned why Spain has provided legal protection from death or torture to great apes but not to bulls.

A Philosophical Milestone

While Pozas hasn’t denied these fundamental contradictions, he believes that the vote will nevertheless set an important precedent by establishing legal rights for other animals. “We are seeking to break the species barrier — we are just the point of the spear,” he said.

Having been successful in Spain, animal rights advocates will now be encouraged to press for similar measures in other European countries. Indeed, such efforts have been picking up steam for the last fifteen years. In 1992, Switzerland amended its constitution to allow animals to be considered “beings” and not things. A decade later, German legislators voted to add the words “and animals” to a constitutional clause obliging the state to respect and protect the dignity of human beings.

Writing in the normally right wing National Review, political scientist Richard Stevens praised the audacity of the Spanish legislation. “After a quiescence lasting half a millennium, Spain has distinguished itself by a return to the legal genius demonstrated by Francisco de Vitoria [a Spanish theologian best remembered for his defense of the rights of the Indians of the New World against Spanish colonists and for his ideas of the limitations of justifiable warfare] and Francisco Suarez in the 16th century [a Spanish theologian and philosopher, a founder of international law, often considered the most prominent Scholastic philosopher after St. Thomas Aquinas, and the major theologian of the Roman Catholic order known as the Society of Jesus or Jesuits].

“The genius of the Spaniards,” Stevens added, “is evidenced by their abandonment of the Aristotelian claptrap holding that what distinguishes man from the brutes is that man is endowed with logos, that is, reasoned speech that enables him to question the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, and the noble and the base. What Aristotle in his ignorance misses has been shown by modern science, namely, that the great apes and men have nearly identical DNA.”

Another legal expert, Thomas Rose of the University of Western Ontario, has also addressed the ethical dimensions of the Spanish decision. Writing for the online edition of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation he wrote “Apes are even capable of learning to communicate in another language and teach it to their offspring. In other words, apes are conscious, self-aware beings, just like humans. But does that mean they deserve to be granted personhood? Well, why not? Consider that under most international law corporations are recognized as legal persons and are granted many of the same rights humans enjoy, the right to sue, to vote and to freedom of speech. What enables an inanimate object like a corporation to enjoy personhood is a nicety called a legal fiction. A legal fiction is something assumed in law to be fact, irrespective of the truth or accuracy of that assumption. Corporate personhood is recognized the world over, so why not ape personhood? More than 2,000 years after Aristotle declared that Mother Nature had made all animals for the sake of humankind, that assumption might soon be stood on its head.”

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and The Rise of The New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)

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