Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

On zoos, chimpanzees, and rights for Great Apes


This morning I spotted a video on the Telegraph’s website of a chimpanzee in a welsh zoo communicating with visitors.

Welsh Mountain Zoo doesn’t say much about how it came by its chimps. They have eleven; three taken from the wild, three transferred from other zoos, and the rest are two generations of children born in captivity. I have a feeling that the zoo would say if their chimps were rescue animals, so the fact that they haven’t is a good indication that the chimps that weren’t born in the zoo were captured in the wild in order to be exhibited for human entertainment in a zoo.

The chimpanzee in the video appears to be asking a visitor to release him, using sign-language to communicate his desire to leave his enclosure, meanwhile the zoo’s visitors laugh at the hilarity of it all. Watching the video, and thinking about the lives of chimpanzees in zoos, I just can’t see the funny side myself.

In 1997 Goodin, Pateman, and Pateman wrote a brave, and ground-breaking paper titled ‘Simian Sovereignty’. In it, they argued that the other Great Apes besides humans: chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, are entitled to many of the same rights to territorial and personal sovereignty as humans are. Meanwhile, the Great Ape Project has campaigned since the early nineties for the UN to adopt a Declaration on Great Apes, granting them legal protections from being killed, deprived of liberty, or tortured.

Normally, I’d be sitting here at my desk, setting out a carefully constructed, reasoned argument for why it’s wrong to treat non-human animals as the mere means to our ends. However, the emotional force of that unnamed chimpanzee trying to persuade visitors to release it, and using language to do so is almost enough on its own. I’ve seen chimps in zoos, and although I’m sure zoo-keepers are nice people who try their best to make their the lives of their captives pleasant, there’s just no way that an enclosure in Colwyn Bay is going to allow them to flourish and enjoy life like their natural tropical rainforest habitat would. Chimps aren’t exactly our intellectual equals, in fact they are about on a par with an average human three-year old by my understanding (caveat – I’m an ethicist, not an animal psychologist), but it sure looks like that one was reasoning, communicating, and expressing its future desires. So, they may not be full moral persons (I wouldn’t hold a human three-year-old fully responsible for its actions), but chimps do appear to possess an important degree of autonomy.

So, my thought for the morning is that those chimps that can be successfully returned to the wild should be freed as soon as possible. We certainly shouldn’t be taking chimps from the wild to keep captive and display for our amusement: the word for that is ‘slavery’.


The Telegraph’s story can be read here:

Goodin, Patemand, and Pateman’s ‘Simian Sovereignty’ can be read here:

Learn about the Great Ape Project and the World Declaration on Great Primates here:

For a brilliant and eye-opening talk from someone who is an expert on the minds of chimpanzees, see Frans de Waal’s TED presentation:


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

8 thoughts on “On zoos, chimpanzees, and rights for Great Apes

  1. i whole-heartedly agree with your observation, but i would wish the sentiment of the article to be extended to all creatures larger than ants . every animal or bird i have watched in captivity displays repetetive behaviour , even fish in sea-life centres , i am told that this indicates ‘boredom ‘ or frustration , perhaps we should put all the prisoners in the zoo cages
    for the public to ogle ? how long would it be before there was a public outcry about ‘human rights’ violations ? let them be violated – after all , these prisoners had scant regard for the rights of their victims .

    • Thanks for the comment Trevor. My own view is that certain animals will have a greater interest in freedom than others. Great apes, and cetaceans, will be much closer to humans in the need for freedom than some of the less self-aware creatures. Obviously, most creatures need a degree of freedom to flourish, and will have their welfare negatively impacted by boredom, but there are many non-sentient or barely sentient creatures in zoos (molluscs, insects, etc) that probably cannot suffer. There will also be creatures that can live happy lives, and flourish, in zoos if the conditions are right. Not being an expert on animal cognition, I can’t say which these animals will be, but I certainly agree that it’s wrong to keep many of the animals we do in captivity in order to benefit ourselves.

      As for the absence of zoos being a rights violation – I don’t think anyone could take such a claim seriously. Nobody has a vital interest in visiting a zoo.

  2. Pingback: On zoos, chimpanzees, and rights for Great Apes « The Thrifty ... | orangutan news |

  3. Pingback: On zoos, chimpanzees, and rights for Great Apes « The Thrifty … | Our Endangered Planet and it's Wildlife.

  4. Are you aware of any study correlating the enjoyment of zoos with human empathy? In other words, are we right in assuming that missing the sensitivity to participate to a chimpanzee sufferance imply a less morally-capable human?

    • I’m having a busy time keeping up – thanks for all the comments. I wasn’t aware of the study, but thanks for drawing attention to it. If you are saying that being unable to empathise with the suffering of a chimp suggests a moral failing in a human, then yes, I agree wholeheartedly.

      • I was posing a question, I am not aware of any study in that sense. Sorry, I am not a native English speaker. Anyhow I tend to disagree, as I do not think the generalization toward butchers, farmers and other professional being involved in animals exploitation, to be less morally-capable, would be correct.

    • Thanks for clarifying. If you think non-human animals are worthy of moral concern for their own sakes (which I do), then it becomes very hard to see how people who kill and exploit them for a living are not morally blameworthy, or lacking in some moral faculty. I do think that many people who work in zoos are going to be different – I suspect that they are motivated differently than the butcher, and it may even be that their motivation is to do good for the animals themselves. Nevertheless, I would argue that taking animals from the wild (I appreciate that this is not always the case) and seriously restricting their freedom for profit and entertainment suggests some moral flaw.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s