On October 10, 2013, Tommy looked beyond the bars of his cell to see attorney Steven Wise, the man representing him. Tommy kneeled in a cage that Wise described as a dungeon. Tommy has never been accused any wrongdoing to land him behind bars. His only “crime” is that he is not human. Tommy is a chimpanzee.
Two months after his visit to see Tommy, Wise legally petitioned the court to release Tommy from his solitary confinement in a small, dark, cement cage. Leading primatologists supported Wise’s petition by describing the cognitive, emotional, and physical capacities and suffering of chimpanzees like Tommy. Tommy’s life would have been very different in the wild.
In the wild, chimpanzees have rich and vibrant lives. Mothers closely care for their children, particularly during the first few years of their children’s lives. Young chimpanzees cradle sticks like infants, mimicking their mothers and displaying imagination, similar to the ways in which human children play with dolls. As they mature, chimpanzees develop deep social bonds and grieve the loss of their kin. When traumatized, chimpanzees can suffer from depression, anxiety, compulsive behaviors, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Fortunately, chimpanzees – like humans – can also display tremendous resilience and recover from trauma.
Wise is fighting for very basic rights for Tommy. He is simply asking the courts to provide Tommy the right to live his life more closely to the way he is meant to. Wise has asked the courts to recognize Tommy’s fundamental needs for bodily liberty and integrity – in other words, a life without confinement and being severely harmed. These needs are critical to Tommy’s health and well-being.
Although public health laws are important to human health, some of the most essential laws to human health are those that protect our fundamental needs. International laws like the United Nations Convention against Torture and the Rome Statute of the International Court, and constitutional laws, protect us from infractions on our basic needs. While further progress needs to be made on behalf of vulnerable human populations, the rights of humans and nonhuman animals are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, there is common ground occupied by those working on behalf of humans and nonhuman animals – both because of the common potential for suffering and because many solutions to successfully combat prejudice, abuse, and violence are universal.
In 1954, Abraham Maslow described five areas that are critical to human physical and psychological well-being: the freedom to meet fundamental physical needs (e.g. air, water, food, sleep, and movement); safety and security; love and belonging; respect; and opportunities to learn, explore, and contribute. Emerging scientific evidence reveals that many other animals have similar needs. From chimpanzees to chickens, dogs to cats, and elephants to rats, we are learning that other animals love, learn, laugh, and grieve in similar ways to humans (and sometimes more impressively than humans).
Concepts like the One Health Initiative recognize the connections between the health of humans and nonhuman animals. While the idea behind the One Health Initiative is a good starting point, I hope the One Health movement will look beyond the public health impact of animal health to human health and to the mutual essential needs humans and nonhuman animals possess.
Historically, many people have been denied rights to basic freedoms and needs based on the color of their skin, their gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. The arc of the moral universe has slowly bent toward justice and laws have evolved, thanks to the courage of everyday heroes and heroines who fought for the health and well-being of other individuals. Today, efforts like those of Wise and his team of lawyers and scientists also focus on eliminating prejudices based on species. Tommy’s life depends on it.
Those of us who have been born free and remain free cannot help but take for granted freedom from abuses. Imagine not being able to move at will or protect yourself from trespasses over your body. Somebody bravely fought so we don’t have to fear these abuses. Shouldn’t we do the same for others?