Not just monkey business

By Legal Eagle

What happens if a person is brought up in a way that is more likely to cause them to act violently? Should they be criminally responsible for their actions? That’s a difficult enough question, but what happens if the perpetrator of a crime is a monkey? These questions are raised by the case of Chico the delinquent pet macaque.

Chico had already been in trouble with the law previously. When US Federal agents had visited the home of his owner some years ago, Chico had acted aggressively and threw faeces at the agents (although he was not the subject of their investigation, of course). This probably didn’t help his cause in the eyes of the law.

On the present occasion, he escaped from his home in Spokane and bit three people shortly thereafter. He was then taken into custody and held at a local humane society. Because he had bitten people, there was a chance that he could have infected them with rabies or herpes B, both of which are fatal to humans. The only way of testing for rabies is a post mortem test of brain tissue, and accordingly, it was decided that he should be put down.

One can’t help feeling sorry for poor old Chico. Apparently it’s a very bad idea to keep monkeys as pets, and they commonly become aggressive and violent. The bottom line is that in many cases, they can’t be “domesticated”, but nor can they then readapt to normal primate society either. Further, some monkeys carry diseases which can be transferred to humans. Many macaques carry Herpes B.

Should a primate like Chico have “quasi-human” rights or “primate rights”? Some might argue that we show no qualms about putting down dogs who bite humans, so a monkey is no different. However, monkeys are much closer to humans genetically speaking. Should they be given more of a chance than a dog?

Here it seems that Chico was put down primarily because of the health concerns involved, but it doesn’t seem fair that he has to pay the ultimate price for that: his misbehaviour is a direct consequence of his owner’s behaviour in treating him as a pet. Incidentally, it appears that his owner will be charged with keeping a dangerous animal. She is already awaiting sentencing for fraud proceedings in relation to a false college degrees sold over the Internet.

I can’t help wondering what would happen if a larger primate (such as an orang utan or a chimpanzee) killed a person. Should it be determined if the primate had understanding of its actions if it was proposed to put the animal down? To establish criminal liability, it is required to establish that there was an actus reus (criminal action) and a mens rea (criminal intention). It has been argued that chimpanzees could potentially be more rational than human beings (in an experiment involving the economist’s ultimatum game). Do chimpanzees and other great apes have the moral agency required to be prosecuted for a crime? I am sure I have seen a documentary where a grieving chimpanzee mother carried around her dead baby for days, until some other chimps from the group took the baby away. It was actually very distressing to watch. Clearly the mother and the other chimps had a concept of death, and what is more, the mother had a very human reaction to her child’s death.

On the other hand, having a “quasi-trial” for an animal could become farcical. There is a long and dishonourable tradition of animal trials. The most common animals which were the subject of such trials were pigs, bulls, cows or horses, or pests such as rats, mice and weevils. Edward Payson Evans wrote a book called The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals in 1906, which cited a variety of cases, including the prosecution of a number of moles in the Valle D’Aosta in 824, the charges against a cow by the Parliament of Paris in 1546 and the conviction of a Swiss dog for murder in 1906. It’s well worth reading this article in Cabinet Magazine for more details of the book – I think I need a copy.

Back to Chico: a case such as this does raise serious issues as to how we deal with criminal offences, whether committed by human or primate.

  • How much should ill-treatment and bad upbringing explain criminal conduct?
  • If monkeys can become aggressive through a particular kind of upbringing, is the same true of humans?
  • How genetically close should an animal be to a human being before it is treated like a human before the law? (if at all)
  • What if it can be shown that a particular kind of animal has some sort of moral understanding akin to human understanding?
  • What if a human perpetrator has very little moral understanding of the consequences of his or her criminal actions? Does this make them able to be treated like an “animal”? (I would argue not – that’s what universal human rights are all about – but it’s an interesting question)

It’s a pretty sad case all in all. It sounds to me like the US is in dire need of some laws with regard to keeping primates as pets – primates are very like us in some ways, but they are not substitute children, and they do badly in a domesticated environment.

(Via Short Sharp Science blog, from New Scientist)

(Hat tip to Dave Bath for bringing this case to my attention)


  1. Posted March 17, 2008 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    On actus reus (criminal action) and a mens rea (criminal intention) – it’s possible to argue that an understanding of immoral action is implied by the ability to work in the moral plane. A recent paper shows that chimps can display non-reciprocal altruism (helping without the expectation of getting something back) at least as much as a human toddler. The experiment was to have an unfamiliar (low chance of past or future reciprocity) human obviously trying to reach something through bars, and the chimps would walk over and push the object within reach. See Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children Warneken F, Hare B, Melis AP, Hanus D, Tomasello M (2007) PLoS Biol 5(7): e184 for the gory details.

    There is also this Guardian story about moves in Spanish parliaments to grant personhood to great apes, and this about an Austrian case where the personhood and right to hold property of a chimp was dismissed on a technicality because the judge ruled that his human advocates “had no legal standing to argue on the chimp’s behalf” – not that the chimp had no legal standing.

    The Spanish initiative allows the right to not BE property, but also own property, and the obligation on the state to protect them like the state would a human with significant cognitive impairment.

    I’d also say that it’s not genetic similarity to humans, but capacities (would killing ET be murder? How would we deal with a captured extraterrestrial who had intentionally killed a human?).

    The issues are tricky because there is no cognitive gap between human and non-human capacities, but an overlap – apes are smarter than about 15% of humans when measured with “sign-language” IQ tests, only 1 standard deviation below the mean. A “genius” human is only 2 and a bit standard deviations above the mean. It’s not until you get to 3 standard deviations from the mean that a statistician would say “almost everything in that group is included”. By these figures, a genius might have twice the right to treat an average human as a lesser being than the average human has to treat a chimp as a lesser being.

    It wasn’t that long ago that non-whites were regarded as subhuman, and could be property rather than own property.

  2. Posted March 17, 2008 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I forgot a big difference between dogs and non-human great apes is the ability of chimps etc to use sign language – just like deaf people – allowing the chimp to receive advice and give instruction to a lawyer, and in court, with a court translator, answer questions, plead guilty/not-guilty, etc.

    However, might that mean that if the chimp has NOT been taught sign language, that the action is adjourned until reasonable efforts have been made to teach it sign-language? (Imagine a deaf/mute person who has never been taught to use sign language, read or write).

3 Trackbacks

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