Personhood of Primates
An Animal Rights Article from


We received the following email from Gary Adams on 20 March 2003, which speaks of the personhood of non-human beings.

Frank and Mary,

It's me again. I put the link for the we site from which I copied this at the bottom of this email. This is the last paragraph on that web page. I am becoming convinced that chimpanzees are not nearly as far from us as some people try to claim. They are self-aware, they think, they feel, they laugh, and they cry. When someone asked Koko, the signing gorilla, where gorillas go when they die, she signed, "comfortable/place/bye." I'm not positive I've got the middle word right, but I know the other two are accurate. She has a concept of the afterlife!

One of the most dramatic things that a person who does not know chimpanzees soon discovers is that the chimpanzees have very distinct personalities that are certainly as variable and complex as our own.

For example, Washoe is a very caring individual who is always looking out for the "underdog" and taking their side. She has a great deal of compassion and has a remarkable capacity to empathize with humans and chimpanzees alike.

One of our longtime volunteers, Kat Beach, once told me that when she first met Washoe she was amazed that a chimpanzee could use human language. But after getting to know the chimpanzees, she was instead amazed by "what" Washoe communicated.

In the summer of 1982 Kat was newly pregnant, and Washoe, having had two pregnancies herself, doted over her belly, asking her about her BABY. Unfortunately, Kat had a miscarriage and she didn't come in to our laboratory for several days. When she finally came back Washoe greeted her warmly but then moved away and let Kat know she was upset that she'd been gone. Knowing that Washoe had lost two of her own children, Kat decided to tell her the truth. "MY BABY DIED," Kat signed to her. Washoe looked down to the ground. Then she looked into Kat's eyes and signed CRY touching her cheek just below her eye. That single word, CRY, Kat later said, told her more about Washoe than all her longer, more grammatically perfect sentences. When Kat Had to leave that day, Washoe wouldn't let her go and signed to her PLEASE PERSON HUG.

This experience of Kat's has since been extensively examined in scientific research on the "Theory of Mind." It has been repeated demonstrated that our fellow hominids can see the world from another person's point of view, in essence understand how another mind might see the world (Fouts and Mills, 1997).   

Return to Animal Rights Articles