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Note: The contents in words and pictures of this article are based on the facts when it was first published (27.02.2007).

Vienna, am 27.02.2007

World first: Great Ape trial in Austria

In a groundbreaking case at the Mödling district court, south of Vienna, Austria, a judge is to rule whether a chimp deserves a legal guardian

The chimp Hiasl was abducted from his family group at the age of one in the jungle of Sierra Leone in West Africa in 1982 and illegally brought to Vienna, where he was seized by customs officers. He had been destined for a vivisection laboratory of the company Immuno, to be used for AIDS and hepatitis research. Authorities handed Hiasl over to foster parents. He was brought up and socialized in a human family, and from the age of 10 he has been looked after by an animal sanctuary. Since this animal sanctuary went bankrupt at the beginning of this year, Hiasl’s fate is once again uncertain.

In order to ensure that he would not be sold to a zoo, a benefactor donated €5000 to Hiasl and the president of Austrian animal rights organisation VGT, DDr. Martin Balluch, on the proviso that they both agree on how the money should be spent. This trick provided Hiasl’s co-beneficiary with the legal loophole to exercise his right to demand a legal guardian for Hiasl. In an unprecedented move, DDr. Balluch applied to the Mödling district court, to have a legal guardian appointed.

The court application included expert statements by Austria's best-known primatologist, Dr. Signe Preuschoft, who headed the rehabilitation of 44 ex-laboratory chimps released in 2002 by US pharmaceutical company, Baxter, from their biomedical lab in Orth an der Donau, and the world-renowned expert on wild chimps, London University’s Prof. Volker Sommer, supporting Great Ape rights and legal guardianship. In their view, chimps are biologically speaking humans, they can have offspring with contemporary homo sapiens, and they fulfil the necessary conditions for personhood: they have a so-called theory of mind. In addition, two Professors at the law faculty of Vienna University also argued that in their expert opinion, a chimp should be considered a person before the law and would deserve a legal guardian to safeguard his/her interests.

On the 20th February, the judge called the first hearing. She has halted proceedings until documents to prove Hiasl’s identity can be provided. Today, DDr. Balluch handed in a court application for the proceedings to continue. Hiasl has been living in Austria for 25 years and since he was abducted illegally from West Africa at a very early age, seeking asylum in Austria, no such documents cannot be provided. And in any case, the law does not see such documents as a necessary prerequisite for a legal guardian to be appointed.

The coming weeks will show how this historic case will proceed. If Hiasl is granted a legal guardian, the long-term implications could be far reaching as for the first time the species barrier would be breached for legal personhood. Practically speaking, a consequence would also be that Hiasl’s legal guardian could sue the vivisection company responsible for Hiasl’s abduction for damages.

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