Despite all the debate involving Evolution Theory, most of us believe that apes are man’s closest relatives. With this
argument in mind, the members of the Great Ape Project advocate establishing a more ethical behavior toward these animals.
Beyond that, the group believes that apes are as important as humans, as individuals, therefore deserve the same respect we have for our own fellow men. In the face of contemporary values that deny all nonhuman animals even the most basic protections, GAP asks who are the most obvious candidates for extending the basic moral protections, sometimes called “rights,” now granted only to humans? One answer to this question is surely gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and bonobos. There is very good science showing how extraordinarily complex these animals are as individuals. This is why these individuals are the focus of GAP.
Some think this simple idea is too radical because it requires basic changes at some widely accepted institutions – such as zoos and theme parks – that keep these animals on display for human entertainment or education. Also, acceptance of this idea would eliminate other more recent practices, including experiments in biomedical facilities involving chimpanzees.
On the other hand, some critics believe that this idea is not radical enough. They demand that every animal organization, including GAP, focus on all nonhuman animals. It’s true that animals other than the great apes (a category which scientifically speaking also includes humans) deserve recognition and protection, but as profoundly important as this objection is, it overlooks two significant points.
First, there is no reason the kinds of arguments GAP advances on behalf of the nonhuman great apes could not be applied to many other animals.
Secondly, most modern societies educate young humans to exclude all nonhuman animals from the important set of protections we offer to all mankind. At GAP, we refer to this as the moral circle or the community of equals.
GAP’s strategy is to challenge speciesism by focusing on those nonhuman animals that deserve the kinds of protections most societies reserve for only members of the human species.
The nonhuman great apes provide perfect examples of individuals who have distinctive personalities and live in rich, complex communities with their own traditions. When humans disrupt the lives of such animals by holding them in zoos or a biomedical lab, it is easy to show that the individuals involved suffer terribly.
GAP’s simple idea leads one to insist that each of us must inquire about any animal’s life to know whether harming it poses an ethical issue. The Great Ape Project is, thus, a powerful first step away from the speciesism that now affects all nonhuman animals.
The Book. The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity, edited by Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1993)
The book tells us a sad story of thousands of animals who are held in captivity today. The writers go into great detail to explain the terrible conditions under which these animals live. With this book, GAP hopes to raise awareness about its “Declaration on Great Apes,” already signed by tens of thousands of people around the world and accessible at www.enviroweb.org/gap.
The Organization. This common sense idea is promoted by The Great Ape Project International, an all-volunteer organization headed by Peter Singer and directed by an international board of directors. Helping nonhuman great apes inevitably takes many different forms. GAP’s work thus has ranged from the support of well-run sanctuaries to helping specific individuals to legislative initiatives. GAP’s volunteers also work in educational institutions, spelling out the extent and nature of speciesism and its harmful effects on all nonhuman animals. You can reach the organization through its Web site www.enviroweb.org/gap; its email address: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by sending correspondence to PO Box 19492, Portland, OR 97280-0492.