Sandra and Tommy: Apes and Ethics

A court in Argentina said that Sandra the orangutan is “una persona no humana (non-human person)” in 2014.1 Or maybe 2015. I’ll get back to that.

Instead of going ape over that news, I learned a little about Sandra, the Buenos Aires Zoo, and the curious case of Tommy the chimp:

  1. ‘A Non-Human Person:’ the Story Continues
  2. Sandra the Orangutan: Law and “Persons”
  3. The Curious Case of Tommy the Chimp

Chimps and orangutans don’t have much in common with cephalopods, apart from being the subject of intelligence-related research; but I wrote about them, anyway:

Now, a few words about science, faith, and what I see in a mirror.


Looking in a Mirror

When I look in a mirror, I see eyes, nostrils, and a mouth: it’s pretty obvious that I’m an animal, a vertebrate.

The hair shows that I’m a mammal. Other features peg me as a primate; specifically a hominid: the sort of critter we used to call “great apes.”

That doesn’t bother me: which may need some explaining.

I’ve run into folks who seem to feel “set apart” from the rest of God’s creation.

Maybe it feels more “spiritual” to pretend that physical reality is nasty, and that humans aren’t supposed to have biological functions. That doesn’t make sense. Not to me.

I’m a Christian, a Catholic, so I must believe that I’m made from the stuff of this world:

2 the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.”
(Genesis 2:7)

That doesn’t mean that my faith is shaken when I check my blood sugar, and see something other than phyllosilicate minerals — literal clay — come out of the pinprick.

Taking the Bible seriously does not mean believing that Sacred Scriptures were written from a contemporary Western literalist’s viewpoint. Not even close. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101133)

It does mean believing that God doesn’t make junk:

“God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed – the sixth day.”
(Genesis 1:31)

If God thinks this world is “very good,” I’m not going to argue.

Besides, I agree. I like the world I’m in. I don’t think it’s perfect, and that’s another topic.

Greater Admiration

We’re told that God created a good, beautiful, and ordered world, and that studying it is okay.

Scientific discoveries are invitations to “even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator.” (Psalms 19:2; Wisdom 7:17; Catechism, 283, 299, 341)

We’re a special sort of animal, endowed with reason, with free will. We’re also people. We’re made in the image of God: rational, with free will. (Catechism, 1951, 17001706, 1730)

That freedom comes with personal responsibility, and that’s yet another topic. (Catechism, 17311742)

Part of our job is taking care of the physical world, including animals. (Genesis 1:2728; Catechism, 16, 341, 373, 24152418)

Galenus: Almost, but Not Quite, Right

Noticing similarities between ourselves and other primates, and looking for differences, is nothing new.

Aelius Galenus/Claudius Galenus/Κλαύδιος Γαληνός was a doctor when Antoninus Pius was Emperor, and died around the time Justin Martialis assassinated Caracalla.

Martialis was upset because Caracalla hadn’t promoted him to Centurion. We’re pretty sure that Praetorian prefect Macrinus aimed Martialis at Caracalla, with predictable results.

Then a Scythian archer killed Martialis, a few days later Macrinus was the new emperor, and that’s yet again another topic.

Where was I? Galenus, monkeys, Caracalla. Right.

The Roman Empire didn’t allow autopsies back then, except in very rare cases, like Julius Caesar’s assassination; so Galen dissected monkeys, not humans.

He figured that since monkeys look a lot like humans, human anatomy was the same as monkey anatomy: apart from the tail. He was almost, but not quite, right.

I’ve said this before.

Truth and Pope Leo XIII

“Saeculum obscurum/dark ages” is what Caesar Baronius called the time between 888, when the Carolingian Empire ended to the Georgian Reform of 1050 (more or less). That was around 1600.

He had a point. Toward the end of that period, Pope Benedict IX was Pope three times: the only one to have been kicked out and reinstated, and the only Pope who sold the Papacy.

Those were not good times.

We’re up to Benedict XVI now, and Pope Francis.

The “dark ages” name caught on, along with the notion that religion drenched (European) civilization in superstition and ignorance from the 6th to the 13th centuries.

The notion is — inaccurate.

St. Albertus Magnus, patron Saint of scientists, lived toward the end of that period. It’s hardly surprising that he studied natural processes. That’s one way we can learn more about God. (Catechism, 3135)

Since we don’t worship nature — that’d be idolatry — we can study it without fear of offending ‘the spirits.’ (Catechism, 282283, 21122114)

We think God is large and in charge, and rational. As St. Iranaeus pointed out, we’re rational and therefore like God; with free will — and that brings up still more topics. (Catechism, 268, 21122114, 1730, 1934, 1951)

Bottom line, the Greco-Roman prohibition of autopsies no longer applies. Not where folks understood the Catholic faith. (Catechism, 2301)

Today’s medical science and technology probably exists in large part because Christianity’s attitude toward the study of nature allows autopsies and other scientific research.

Getting back to Galenus, we’re a bit like monkeys, but not as close as he figured. Eventually folks like Andreas Vesalius started studying human bodies.

Fast-forwarding to the 19th century, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species inspired some folks to compare ape and human anatomy, and others to panic. That’s still going on, but I figure Pope Leo XIII is right:

“…God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures – and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. … Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893) [emphasis mine])

Getting a Grip About Owen, Huxley, and Primate Brains

The “Great Hippocampus Question” was a hot topic during the mid-19th century.

Biologist, comparative anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen agreed that evolution happened: but was more complicated than Darwin’s model.

Owen also said that humans were mammals, but not primates: and so couldn’t have evolved from apes.

Owen based his argument on the (alleged) fact that only human brains have a hippocampus minor.

Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley thought Darwin was right.

The debate devolved into something resembling the current American presidential election, producing satiric poems and cartoons: and, happily, some serious research.

Scientists eventually found something a whole lot like a hippocampus minor in other primate brains, and we moved on:

These days we call that part of the brain the Calcar avis. Human brains aren’t exactly like those of other primates, but we’re not all that different, either.

I’m about as sure as I can be that humans are people and orangutans aren’t. But I’m also quite certain that we may use animals, and that we are responsible for their humane care: particularly those which we directly control. (Catechism, 2417, 2457, 24152418)


1. ‘A Non-Human Person:’ the Story Continues


(From AP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Sandra the Orang-utan hit international headlines when A Buenos Aires court declared her ‘a non-human person’ deserving rights”
(BBC News))

Buenos Aires to shut scandal-prone zoo
BBC News (June 24, 2016)

The mayor of Buenos Aires has announced that his administration has taken over the running of the city’s zoo after a series of scandals about the condition of its animals and buildings.

“It will now become an eco-park promoting environmental conservation.

“Its 2,500 animals will be moved to sanctuaries in other parts of Argentina and abroad where they can be housed in better conditions.

“Mr Larreta said the animals had been living in degrading conditions.

“The zoo has been in existence since 1875, run by a private company which won a concession to manage it….”

Turns out, the Parque Tres de Febrero was built on land which used to be owned by Juan Manuel de Rosas.

The project started in 1974, the park opened on November 11, 1875, and was owned by Argentina’s Federal Government until 1888.

That’s when ownership transferred to the City of Buenos Aires, and Mayor Antonio Crespo started the Buenos Aires Zoo, separating it from the rest of the park. From around 1944 to 1991, a series of political appointees ran the place: and let it deteriorate.

The zoo was privatized in 1991, animals started being transferred from cages to natural-looking areas, and a Buenos Aries court said that an orangutan was “una persona no humana (non-human person)” in 2014. That’s what the BBC News article said.

Or maybe it was October 21, 2015, when Judge Elena Amanda Liberatori ruled on Sandra’s status.1

This isn’t a tidy little tale of capitalist profit-mongers oppressing the non-human proletariat, until thwarted by a wise and benevolent government — and that’s another topic or two.

I think it’s interesting that making the transition from animals in cages to animals in more open settings apparently started after privatization.

That would probably have happened anyway: the trend over the last few decades has been away from menagerie and towards immersion exhibit.


2. Sandra the Orangutan: Law and “Persons”


(From Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Sandra covers her head with a cloth to protect herself from the public gaze at the Buenos Aires Zoo”
(BBC News))

Court in Argentina grants basic rights to orangutan
(December 21, 2014)

A court in Argentina has ruled that a shy orangutan who spent the last 20 years in a zoo can be granted some legal rights enjoyed by humans.

“Lawyers had appealed to free Sandra from the Buenos Aires zoo by arguing that although not human, she should be given legal rights.

“They had argued that she was being illegally detained.

“If there is no appeal, the ape will be transferred to a sanctuary in Brazil where she will enjoy greater freedom.

“The singular case hung on whether the animal was a ‘thing’ or a ‘person’.

“In December a New York State court threw out a request to free a privately owned chimpanzee arguing that the animal was property and had no legal rights….”

I’m no export on Argentine law and custom: so maybe “una persona no humana”1 doesn’t have the apparent connotations of “non-human person.”

In my country, a corporation is a legal person — but not a natural person, or human being. Both sorts of “persons” have legal rights and obligations: but not the same rights.

I’m okay with that: and am acutely aware that American federal, state, and local laws are not perfect.

Part of the good news about the 2014 decision is that Sandra may enjoy a better life as a result.

Another bit of good news is that apparently her new “rights” don’t include the right to vote. Don’t laugh: it’s been seriously suggested.1

I haven’t discovered whether the Buenos Aires court was a city, provincial, or federal court.1


3. The Curious Case of Tommy the Chimp


(From AP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Chimpanzee Tommy is believed to be 40 years old”
(BBC News))

US chimpanzee Tommy ‘has no human rights’ – court
BBC News (December 4, 2016)

A chimpanzee is not entitled to the same rights as people and does not have to be freed from captivity by its owner, a US court has ruled.

“The appeals court in New York state said caged chimpanzee Tommy could not be recognised as a ‘legal person’ as it ‘cannot bear any legal duties’.

“The Nonhuman Rights Project had argued that chimps who had such similar characteristics to the humans deserved basic rights, including freedom.

“The rights group said it would appeal….”

The photo reminded me of old movies like “White Heat” and “Little Caesar,” with lines like Rico Bandello‘s: “You want me, you’ll have to come and get me.”

“Tommy” went missing last month. The chimp may have escaped, like Inky did in April.2 My guess is that some one stole the famous chimp.

Thinking that the chimp was “stolen,” not “kidnapped,” doesn’t mean that I think “Tommy” shouldn’t be located and restored to a safe(er) place.

Missing: ‘Tommy’ the Chimpanzee Featured in New Documentary about Animal Rights and Subject of Famous Lawsuit
Roger Friedman, Showbiz411 (May 25, 2016)

“There’s no amber alert for chimpanzees, but maybe there should be. Tommy, the chimp who was at the center of a much publicized lawsuit over his rights and ‘personhood’ last year, is missing.

“Tommy is featured in an Oscar worthy documentary opening today in New York called ‘Unlocking the Cage’ by Oscar nominee Chris Hegedus and lifetime Oscar winner DA Pennebaker.

“Last night the film was screened at HBO….”

I talked about primate intelligence, human and otherwise, earlier; why I think humans are animals, but not-human animals aren’t people; and why we shouldn’t mistreat (other) animals.

Inky the octopus started me thinking about cephalopod intelligence, which seems like a good way to wrap up this post.

This sort of thing fascinates me. Your experience may vary.

Neurons, Brains, and Ethics


(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Since animals use neurons to process information, we can get a very rough estimate of how smart a critter is by counting how many neurons it has. These numbers are averages, and rounded to the nearest hundred, hundred thousand, or whatever:

  • Human: 86,000,000,000
  • Cat: 760,000,000
  • Octopus: 500,000,000
  • Brown rat: 200,000,000
  • Cockroach: 1,000,000
  • Jellyfish (Hydra vulgaris): 5,600
    (Source: Wikipedia)

Okay, that’s how many neurons the critters have in their entire nervous system. Looks like octopi should be smarter than rats, but not quite as smart as cats. Makes sense to me.

We can get a slightly better estimate by counting neurons in the cerebral cortex:

  • Human: 21,000,000,000
  • Cat: 300,000,000
  • Rat: 18,000,000
    (Source: Wikipedia)

A chimp has roughly 6,200,000,000 neurons in the cerebral cortex: so yes, chimps are really smart, but not as smart as humans.

Only mammals have a cerebral cortex. Birds are smarter than the “birdbrain” epithet suggests, but their pallium isn’t wired like a mammal’s and I’m wandering off-topic.

An octopus is a mollusc, with about two thirds of the critter’s 300,000,000 neurons in its arms. Small wonder that octopus intelligence is “much debated among biologists.” They’re not wired at all like us.

However, it looks like those eight-armed mollusks could be at least as smart as the lab rats used in maze experiments.

That’s partly why some countries have protective legislation for octopuses, insisting that surgery performed on them be with anesthesia.

I think that’s a good idea. Responsibilities come with being human. Using animals is okay, but making them suffer or die needlessly isn’t. (Catechism, 2418)


1 I haven’t found much about the 2015 ruling, and only a little more about Judge Liberatori: the latter mostly in Wikipedia’s Spanish version. Either way, it looks like the Argentine court “…ordered the city of Buenos Aires to provide what is ‘necessary to preserve her cognitive abilities.’…” (Wikipedia)

More about Sandra the orangutan, animal rights, and all that; mostly from an American viewpoint:

2 Animal intelligence and Inky the octopus:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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5 Responses to Sandra and Tommy: Apes and Ethics

  1. Naomi Gill says:

    Is this supposed to be a link? “Neurons, Brains, and Ethics”

    Extra comma: “as I can be, that”

    Missing start quote: “with lines like Rico Bandello‘s: You want me, you’ll have to come and get me.””

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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