For several years, I served on the board of Primarily Primates, a Texas primate refuge. During that time, I sponsored Lee, a Java (Long-tailed) macaque. Caged, tattooed, wearing a restraining collar, Lee had served as a model for toxic reactions to chemicals. The refuge removed the collar and sent it to me, together with this portrait photo.
It’s not hard to imagine being a trapped macaque. Macaques are very much like us in their physical and mental responses. Should they have rights?
Arguably so. But several cases have been made for the personhood of great apes, and that line of advocacy has yet to pan out in any meaningful way. Imagine how long it would take to get to the case for macaque rights. And even if, by some miracle, we one day win rights for all of the primates of the planet, and even if those rights, by some miracle, receive international assent, what will the state of the biosphere be by then? Would our recognition of their personhood ensure that they, and the other beings of the edge of the forests, can live on their own terms?
It hardly seems possible. Respect is a tall order. In the literature of governments, Long-tailed macaques are called vertebrate pests. Translation: Humans dragged and dropped Java macaques around the world and now these primates pick crops out of our farms.
In their native territories, Java macaques face continuing habitat loss. They are subjects of “culling due to human-macaque conflicts.” They are stalked to be eaten and for so-called sport. They are snatched and bred and sold into the international trade for research. They even have a laboratory trade name: cynomolgus monkey.
Because they gravitate to the edges of forests, they’re visible. In places such as Java, they’ve been presumed abundant. But everywhere they are, they’re stalked.
The late Ardith Eudey, who, with Shirley McGreal, founded the International Primate Protection League, and who for many years chaired the IUCN Primate Specialist Group’s Asia section, rang alarm bells about the severe threats to long-tailed macaques, including the trafficking of these primates to labs. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature did take note, reclassifying Macaca fascicularis from abundant to vulnerable. If we are entering a pandemic era, the quest for vaccines and treatments will continue to promote the lab primate trade, even as humans keep driving climate turmoil and expanding agribusiness, deforestation and sprawl. The primates of the forest’s edge do not have time to spare.
It’s All Connected: Earth Restoration; Animal Liberation; Human Rights.
And this is what animal liberation has to be about. Creating root-level sanctuaries: habitat where once-targeted beings are off-limits to exploitation and able to live where and as they’ve evolved to live. Every element of nature that sustains them carries ethical meaning. This is something our law, which has blessed our systematic exploitation of other animals, is not yet equipped to understand.
In 1805 the Supreme Court of New York, in Pierson vs. Post, addressed competing claims to the body of a hunted fox. When declaring that full physical control over an animal creates ownership, Pierson vs. Post cited legal influencers going back as far as the second century A.D. It’s time for something completely different: knowledge that respects natural biological communities as a whole, and for their own sake. Otherwise, “sustainability” dialogues will keep prioritizing humanity’s interest in extraction, excavation, and exploitation.
In 1972, Christopher D. Stone published an article titled Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment. The piece urged judges to consider the case law that reclassified human slaves as legal persons, asserting that progress for the classes of previously rightless humans could guide the evolution of rights for living beings. The debate made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice William O. Douglas cited Stone’s piece in the 1972 case Sierra Club v. Morton, involving an effort to protect an undeveloped wilderness. Alas, Justice Douglas wrote for the dissent.
Still, the idea percolates. Pittsburgh in 2010 passed a rights-of-nature provision to stop a fracking project. People in the United States, Ecuador, and elsewhere have worked on ways to appoint legal guardians to represent biological communities in courtrooms, and to direct compensation for violations of nature’s rights into eco preservation and restoration. This sort of legal work has meaning, I think. Of course, I also think it has to be accompanied by a vegan commitment at the deepest level. Perhaps the synthesis between these quests can offer a comprehensive framework for respecting animals and nature on their own terms.
Banner photo: Long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis). Lake Gardens, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. By Gary Houston (Universal Public Domain CC0 1.0). Portrait photo: Primarily Primates, Inc.