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Posted: August 8, 2013 8:30 p.m.

Morgan: Do animals have rights?

Animal activists in June praised the decision by the director of the National Institutes of Health to retire 300 of this country’s 360 chimpanzees used for medical research to sanctuaries in the next few years.

The action by Dr. Francis Collins, based on an Institute of Medicine report, came just after a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list all chimpanzees as endangered and raise the bar for most of the research done on chimps. It would not affect chimps in private labs.

In The New York Times’ article dated July 8, 2013, it was noted that the east African country of Gabon is the only other country in the world that allows chimpanzees to be used in medical research.

This week’s edition of the aptly titled The Week magazine features an article on a movement that’s gotten as far as the U.N. to grant to apes – chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans – basic rights allowed to human beings.

The campaign wants to see captivity in zoos and circuses banned along with their use in medical research.

Two countries, New Zealand in 1999 and Spain in 2008, have already awarded individual rights to apes, and "the U.K., Sweden, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands have also banned research on apes for ethical reasons," the article notes.

"Activists say that it’s now clear that our primate cousins have demonstrated that they have inner lives and relationships, can communicate and experience emotions. Therefore, they say, we human beings should expand our ‘moral circle’ to include the great apes and protect them from the deliberate infliction of suffering."

Giving weight to the cause is their ability to "learn and use language."

In the wild, chimps are known to use gestures like "pointing or raising their arms as a way of asking to be picked up.

"They’ve also been observed using tools."

Opponents say the ways that we are alike don’t mean we are the same. In fact, genetics professor Steve Jones at the University of London says that "even mice share 90 percent of our DNA. Should they get 90 percent of human rights? Where do you stop?"

William Falk, The Week editor-in-chief, takes the animal rights issue further.

"The captivity of orcas and dolphins is also being challenged on moral grounds, since they, too, have complex inner lives, social organizations, and individual personalities," he writes.

He refers readers to reviews of a new documentary called "Blackfish," which focuses on orcas in captivity at entertainment parks like SeaWorld. A review by The New York Times cites interviews in the film with former trainers, "all of whom question the wisdom of penning up intelligent, sociable animals that are born to roam free."

Orcas are actually the largest members of the dolphin family. A December article in the Huffington Post by writer David Kirby, author of "Death at SeaWorld," describes them as "among the most intelligent species in the world, making them particularly unsuitable to captivity."

Imagine yourself confined for life to a room about the size of your bathroom. In the wild, orcas travel up to 100 miles a day, stay with their families for life in female-led pods of a few to dozens of whales.

They can live for 30-50 or more years, but at SeaWorld, with the best record in the world for keeping them alive, they live an average of 11 years. There is no record of an orca attacking or killing a human being while free.

On Wednesday, the Georgia Aquarium was denied permission to import 18 beluga whales now held in Russia, saying the permit application failed to "meet the criteria of the Marine Mammal Protection Act."

Additionally, the beluga population where they were captured seems in decline.

The decision came despite the fact that the Georgia Aquarium has spent $2 million in beluga research and wanted to import the whales to "improve the genetic disposition of the captive population and ensure its survival," the article said.

Michael Payne of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the decision to deny the importation of the belugas might, actually, increase "the trade in wild-caught beluga whales." The word "Beluga" means "white" in Russian.

Four belugas have died in captivity at the Georgia Aquarium, but the exhibit is one of the most popular attractions there.

Belugas are known to be good-natured, very social and are often called sea canaries for their wide variety of clucks, chirps and high-pitched squeals.

In Canada, they were hunted for sport from the 1940’s until the 1960’s. Can you even imagine?

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at barbm2158@gmail.com.

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