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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Of Great Apes

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Sy Montgomery marvels at the similarities between humans and their primate next-of-kin.


NUNLEY: Where do you go when you go to the zoo? Well it seems like everyone eventually winds up at the monkey house. We all pause a little longer in front of the apes. Perhaps we're staring at where we came from and wondering if there but for a fluke of evolution go we all. Commentator Sy Montgomery says that in our zoos and in our laboratories we're giving our closest cousins less than their due.

MONTGOMERY: All you have to do is look into the faces of the great apes and you can see the kinship we share. The chimpanzee shares with us nearly 99% of its genetic material. You can get a blood transfusion from a chimp. The other great apes -- gorillas, orangutans, they're so like us that early explorers who saw them for the first time recorded in their journals that they had encountered new races of people. That may sound silly to us now, we know so much better today. Confusing apes, mere animals, with people, what a laugh! Absurd.

Yet in laboratories across the country, we are treating apes as if they were people. We've taken thousands of these great apes away from their jungle homes to live inside buildings. We've taught chimps, gorillas and orangutans to use languages ranging from the American Sign Language of the deaf to languages developed to us on computers. From this we know that apes can, like us, invent entirely new phrases, make jokes, and creatively insult people.

We've trained chimps to be astronauts. We have orangutans performing in Las Vegas acts. We use apes routinely as stand-ins for humans in psychological experiments. And we're always trying to give apes human diseases, which no ape could contract in the wild, so we can test on them human treatments. Among the most horrible diseases is AIDS. So that a chimp might be the first to receive a new treatment for the disease. Meanwhile, doctors turn away terminal human patients who are desperate for any last ditch treatment.

It sounds very mixed up indeed, particularly when you realize there is no shortage of people, but there is a shortage of great apes. But no matter. The point is the great apes are in fact our closest kin. Every researcher using one of these creatures knows this, otherwise they'd be using a cheaper or more commonly available animal.

But wait. If these animals are really so like us, don't we then owe them special moral consideration? If these animals are so like humans, should they not be morally the last creatures we should be kidnapping, incarcerating, torturing and murdering? Some people, among them Jane Goodall, have proposed that apes used in research programs should be retired after serving a certain amount of time, their old age provided for in comfort and security. Like prisoners wrongly convicted, we should repay them for their suffering at our hands.

I once met a man who hearing this plan roared with laughter. A retirement plan for chimps! We can't treat animals like people, he said, that would be absurd. Wouldn't it?

NUNLEY: Sy Montgomery's book The Spell of the Tiger is due out in paperback this spring. She comes to us from member station WEVO in New Hampshire.



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