The Great Apes Project is an association of primatologists, ethicists, psychologists and other experts who are campaigning for a ‘United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes’. The three main rights to be conferred on gorillas, chimpanzees, bobnobos and organutans would be the right to life, individual liberty and prohibition of torture. Basically, they cannot be killed (except in self-defense), cannot be detained if no crime has been commited by them (they will have the right to appeal through an advocate) and cannot be subjected to pain (irrespective of percieved benefit to others). There is also a movement to confer ‘personhood’ on them as they share many similarities with us. Governments are catching on as well. Spain has given the Great Apes these three rights, the U.K & New Zealand have banned experiments on Great Apes while Switzerland prohibits violation of their ‘dignity’.

However, the practise of conferring legal rights to animals is not a recent trend but dates back to medieval times. Some interesting cases;

1. Troublesome termites: In 1713, a group of Franciscan monks in Brazil requested their bishop to excommunicate the termites who destroyed their furniture and foundations of their monastery. The verdict; the monks were instructed to provide alternate habitat for the termites who were in turn instructed to leave the monastery and relocate to the new site.

2. Recalcitrant rats: In 1522, the rats of Autun in France, were accused of destroying the barley crop of the province. When the defendants failed to appear in court, their appointed lawyer argued that his clients lived in different villages and that a single summons would fail to notify them of the complaint. Despite the court order for the citation to  be read out in all parishes of the province,  the rats failed to turn up and thus lost the case by default.

3. Favoured moles: In 1519, the commune of Stelvio, Italy, prosecuted a group of moles whose burrowing damaged crops. Anticipating their forced evacuation, their counsel requested that the moles be granted safe passage from the fields and harm from dogs, cats and other enemies. The judge not only granted this request but also granted 14 extra days to moles with young to vacate the premises.

4. Privileged weevils: The weevils of St. Julien in France were prosecuted for destroying local vineyards. Their lawyer argued that according to the Book of Genesis, God had created animals before human beings and thus the weevils had a prior right to the vineyards. When offered an alternate patch of land for the weevils, the lawyer was not satisfied and claimed that the plot was sterile and could not sustain the needs of his defendants.

5. Innocent piglets: In 1457 in Savigny-sur-Etang, France, a sow and her 6 piglets were imprisoned for killing a 5 year old child. The sow was executed but the piglets were pardoned in view of their extreme youth and the bad example set by their mother.