A push in the US for animals to be granted “personhood” has raised concerns among some Christian groups who see it as an attempt to undermine the God-given sacredness of human life. 

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), headed by Steven M Wise, first took its case to court in the US in 2013, seeking  to have four New York-based chimpanzees – Tommy, Kiko, Hercules and Leo - legally recognised as persons in order to have them released into a Florida sanctuary.  While the cases of Tommy and Kiko appear to have since been resolved, that of Hercules and Leo, continues with further arguments being heard in court earlier this year. 

PERSONHOOD FOR CHIMPS? Don Batten-chief executive of the Australian arm of Creation Ministries International-says granting animals personhood rights would undermine the sanctity of human life. PICTURE: www.freeimages.com

Our inalienable rights are based on the fact that humans are made in the image of God-therefore all human life is sacred as distinct from animal life which is not in the same category because they"re not made in the image of God."

- Don Batten-CEO of the Australian arm of Creation Ministries International

The push to grant personhood to animals - and while the court case is concerned with chimpanzees, the NhRP has said it supports similar recognition for other animals such as elephants, dolphins, whales and great apes - has sparked opposition from Christian groups including Creation Ministries International. 

Dr Don Batten, chief executive of its Australian arm, says the concept of personhood for animals stemmed from US-based Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation and has been defined by Singer and others as the recognition that animals have traits such as intelligence, the ability to communicate, self-awareness and memory.

“As evolutionists and materialists...they regard humans as just evolved animals and so we’re just quantitatively different to chimps or elephants...we’re not qualitatively different,” he says. 

“So this actually stems from a non-Christian worldview. If you take a Christian worldview we are seen as made in the image of God and our laws in countries such as Australia and the United States and so on have been based on that concept. Our inalienable rights are based on the fact that humans are made in the image of God, therefore all human life is sacred, as distinct from animal life which is not in the same category because they’re not made in the image of God.”

Dr Batten says while this view puts animals in a different category to humanity, he points out that that it was Christians like Wilberforce and his friends who were responsible for founding the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in England.

He adds that the Bible clearly teaches cruelty to animals is a sign of wickedness  - in Proverbs 12, for example - and that it’s due to Australia’s Christian heritage that the country already has strict laws against the mistreatment of animals.

Among concerns raised by groups opposed to personhood for animals is what such a ruling for the animals would actually mean in terms of their day-to-day lives, particularly animals who are now living in some form of captivity.

Dr Batten says the push to grant personhood to chimps, for example, would mean they could not be held in confinement. “What do you do, let them out in the street?" he asks, noting this would endanger the animal's lives.

And while the NhRP is asking for the chimps which are the subject of its court cases to be released into a Florida sanctuary, this has already been criticised by opponents of simply exchanging one form of captivity for another.

Dr Batten, meanwhile, says he finds it incredible that Wise had gone on the record in 2002 – during an interview at a book signing in Washington, DC - saying he saw no difference between a chimpanzee and his four-and-a-half year old son.

“I have a three-year-old grand-daughter and, I tell you what, she has much more going for her than a chimpanzee. Even in terms of their own concepts of personhood – if you think about the ability to communicate (for example), her ability to communicate is way in front of any chimpanzee even those who have been trained and schooled by humans for year to try and get them to communicate…”

At the end of the day, Dr Batten believes the push for personhood for animals masks another agenda.

“I don’t believe this is primarily about animals at all," he says. "I believe this is primarily about pushback against Christian attitudes towards the sanctity for human life.”