Skip to main content

Two new movies – one a science-fiction blockbuster, the other a revealing documentary – raise the issue of our relations with our closest non-human relatives, the great apes. Both dramatize insights and lessons that should not be ignored.

Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the seventh film in a series based on Pierre Boule's 1963 novel, Planet of the Apes, about a world populated by highly intelligent simians. Publicity for the new film claims it's "the first live-action film in the history of movies to star, and be told from the point of view of, a sentient animal." Yet, no live apes were used.

Instead, "performance capture technology," originally invented for the movie Avatar, enables a human actor, Andy Serkis, to play the role of the chimpanzee Caesar, not by dressing in a chimp suit but by having every gesture and facial movement, even the twitch of an eyebrow, transformed into the movement of an ape.

Mr. Wyatt acknowledged there were practical reasons for not using real apes. But he also understood the ethical issue. "There are things I didn't want to be involved in," he told me. "To get apes to do anything you want them to do, you have to dominate them; you have to manipulate them into performing. That's exploitative."

His reluctance to join in the exploitation of great apes is understandable, given that the film itself tells the story of apes rising up in response to oppression from dominant humans. The central human character, Will Rodman (played by James Franco), is a scientist who experiments on apes while seeking a cure for Alzheimer's disease.

The film portrays Rodman as, in Mr. Franco's words, "a cold, isolated person." Only when Rodman's superiors cancel his experiments and he takes home Caesar, an infant chimpanzee, does the scientist begin to care about others. The plot then takes another turn when Caesar becomes too big and aggressive to live in a human home, and is taken to what's supposed to be a primate sanctuary but is really a dumping ground for unwanted apes.

As far as the treatment of apes is concerned, much of the film is grounded in reality, as a viewing of Project Nim, a documentary based on Elizabeth Hess's book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, clearly demonstrates. Nim, born in 1973 in a primate research facility in Oklahoma, was taken from his mother when he was just 10 days old to be used in a sign-language experiment.

Reared as part of a human family, he learned to use more than 100 signs from American Sign Language. But he was taken from his first human family and handed over to other teachers. He grew stronger and more aggressive, and began biting his teachers.

Herbert Terrace, the Columbia University psychologist who was directing the project, decided to send Nim back to the primate facility in Oklahoma. There, the pampered chimp – who, when asked to sort photos of humans and apes, put his own photo among the humans – was locked in a cage with other chimps. Nim suffered various other vicissitudes – and narrowly escaped being infected with hepatitis as part of a medical experiment – until he was eventually released to an animal sanctuary, where he died in 2000.

In 1993, Paola Cavalieri and I founded The Great Ape Project, an organization dedicated to the idea of recognizing that great apes have a moral status befitting their nature as self-aware beings who are capable of thought. At a minimum, they should have the rights to life, liberty and protection from torture that we grant to all members of our own species, regardless of their intellectual abilities.

In the intervening years, that idea has made steady progress. Since 2010, the European Union has essentially banned the use of great apes in experiments. And experiments on great apes are now either banned or severely restricted in New Zealand, Australia and Japan. Perhaps the release of these two very different films will lead to a further push to bring great apes within the circle of beings with moral and legal rights. In that way, our closest relatives could serve to bridge the moral gulf that we've dug between ourselves and other animals.

Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne.