The Great Ape Project

By Karen Davis, PhD

It is increasingly recognized that other animals have complex mental lives. They not only can suffer, but they are intelligent beings with a rich and varied social and emotional life. Based on the wealth of evidence, the great apes in particular--gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans--have been singled out as having capacities which make it clear that the moral boundary we draw between them and ourselves must be abolished. Hence, The Great Ape Project (1993), edited by Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, demands "the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes" (p. 4).

In Barber's words, birds behave with "intelligence, purposiveness, and flexibility. ... Birds are sensitively aware and emotional; they have distinctly different personalities; and they know what they are doing"

While focusing specifically on the great apes, this book suggests that extending the moral community to include them could be the beginning of a larger break in the species barrier.

Yet many animal advocates fear that the great ape project, exciting as it is, reinforces the elitism that has caused so much havoc and cruelty in the world: humans are on top, the great apes are sort of beside and sort of below us, some other mammals follow. Birds, reptiles, insects, and fish aren't mentioned. In Peter Singer's 1994 book Rethinking Life and Death, those [nonhuman] beings who qualify as "persons" most conclusively are great apes, although "whales, dolphins, elephants, monkeys, dogs, pigs and other animals may eventually also be shown to be aware of their own existence over time and capable of reasoning. Then they too will have to be considered as persons" (p. 182). Meanwhile, however, they are not to be considered as "persons." The ability to suffer, though it should elicit "concern," does not of itself confer personhood or admit a nonhuman animal or animal species to the "community of equals."

Even to be a nonhuman "person" on the highest level, within this universe of thought, is to be a poor contender according to its standards of value: the vaunted chimpanzees rank with "intellectually disabled human beings" (p. 183). Where does this put the majority of the animal kingdom? What about birds?

To date, birds have received almost no attention from the animal advocacy movement. While it is assumed they can "suffer," little has been said about their cognitive abilities or their value. It is significant that discussions about factory farming assume that while "laying" hens in battery cages suffer, "veal" calves in crates suffer more. Fortunately, two recent books provide information that must change the moral status of birds in human thinking: The Human Nature of Birds by Dr. Theodore Xenophon Barber (1993), and The Development of Brain and Behaviour in The Chicken by Dr. Lesley J. Rogers (1995). Barber is a research psychologist; Rogers is an avian physiologist specializing in the chicken.

Both books offer extensive evidence showing that, in Barber's words, birds behave with "intelligence, purposiveness, and flexibility. ... Birds are sensitively aware and emotional; they have distinctly different personalities; and they know what they are doing" (p. 1). The ability of pigeons to handle complex geometrical, spacial, sequential, and photographic concepts and percepts, to solve problems, retain precise memories, and invent ways to communicate their understanding to humans is astonishing only if we had previously thought that about all a pigeon could do was "suffer." Indeed, a major point in all of these findings is that the suffering of which birds and other animals are capable is much more complex than what we technically call "pain."*

As Marian Dawkins, a researcher into the lives of hens, has said, "Some species may suffer in states that no human has ever dreamed of."

Moreover, as Marian Dawkins, a researcher into the lives of hens, has said, "Some species may suffer in states that no human has ever dreamed of or experienced" (Peter Singer, ed. In Defense of Animals 1985, p. 29).

Pigeons and parrots are now being acclaimed for their hitherto undreamed of cognitive capacities. Meanwhile, research on various other kinds of birds, including chickens, has revealed similar findings that demand a revision of demeaning stereotypes. Much of this research is invasive and cruel. However, Rogers maintains that "the information obtained from this research is beginning to change our attitudes to avian species, including the chicken" (p. 213).

She says that "With increased knowledge of the behaviour and cognitive abilities of the chicken has come the realization that the chicken is not an inferior species to be treated merely as a food source" (p. 213).

Rogers presents detailed evidence showing the complex sensory, motor, and neurological development of the chick inside the egg, the relationship between the unborn chick(s) and the mother hen, and the subtle interactions that go on among the various modalities of awareness and experience in chickens throughout their lives. Following an extremely active incubation period, "The chick hatches with a well-developed brain, immediately able to make decisions and to form memories" (p. 118).

This book provides a strong sense of how vivid a chicken's mental life is, despite Rogers' often cumbersome language. Chickens "seem to have intent to communicate," as shown for example by the fact that a rooster will give alarm calls announcing danger when a hen is present, but not when he is alone. This and many other behaviors indicate that chickens make conscious assessments and logical decisions about their social context (p. 215).

What follows from all the data is a condemnation of the conditions that factory farm chickens, especially, are forced to live in. Regarding the battery cage for "laying" hens, Rogers states unequivocally that "In no way can these living conditions meet the demands of a complex nervous system designed to form a multitude of memories and to make complex decisions" (p. 218). Moreover, she says that while "New practices may be implemented to improve welfare and productivity in intensive poultry systems, . . . it should be realized that even vastly improved intensive systems are unlikely to meet the cognitive demands of the hitherto underestimated chicken brain" (p. 213).

One cannot read Barber or Rogers and believe, if one ever did believe, that a bird, a chicken, is an inferior creature. As Hugh Downs said on his ABC Radio Perspective on ABC News 20/20 on May 29, 1994, "Such close observations of apes and birds and dolphins remind us that humanity is part of a great animal kingdom. All species within this kingdom differ from one another in significant ways, to be sure, but the kingdom does not seem to be organized on the superior/inferior hierarchy. Species are merely different from one another; they are not better than, nor more or less advanced than, each other. The core experience of all animal life is strikingly similar."

With these thoughts, animal advocates cannot allow the idea to take hold that only the great apes have been shown to be fit to be "persons," on an equal or semi-equal basis with ourselves. If certain advocacy groups choose to work on changing the moral status of the great apes in human society, this is fine. However, it should not be done at the expense of the other animals and their advocates. According to The Great Ape Project, it is unreasonable to ask that the members of other species should wait for their rights until all humans have achieved their rights first. The authors explain, "That suggestion itself assumes that beings belonging to other species are of lesser moral significance than human beings. Moreover, on present indications, the suggested delay might well be an extremely long one" (p. 6). Such logic applies just as thoroughly to the issue of the great apes and the other-than-human animals of other species.

Animal advocates cannot allow the idea to take hold that only the great apes have been shown to be fit to be "persons," on an equal or semi-equal basis with ourselves

Other animals should not have to "prove" they are "persons" in order to be granted "basic rights" (Singer, Rethinking Life and Death, p. 182). Many animals, regardless of how intelligent they are, are probably never going to "prove" their cognitive capacities in ways that can satisfy our notion or perception of "personhood." Our own capacities for understanding and communication have limits. What, then?

In any case, there should be no quibbles regarding the personhood, hence the rights, of birds, for as Rogers says, "it is now clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates" (p. 217). This recognition has cost birds dearly in terms of the enormous amount of pain and suffering which they have endured in the process of our "proving" avian intelligence scientifically. It is now time to put the knowledge that has been acquired to use on their behalf.

* "The close similarity between birds and mammals in their physiological and behavioural responses to painful stimuli would argue for a comparable sensory and emotional experience, but is this inference valid? Pain is a subjective experience and the subjective experiences of a bird may be very different from humans. Birds do however, have the physiological, biochemical and anatomical mechanisms similar to those that in the human are known to be correlated with painful experiences. With regard to animal welfare and pain in birds, it is clearly essential that the ethical considerations normally afforded to mammals should also be afforded to birds." Michael Gentle, "Pain In Birds," Animal Welfare 1992, 1:235-247.