From circus to sanctuary, activist fights for chimps' rights

RIO DE JANEIRO Tue Aug 10, 2010 2:25pm IST

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RIO DE JANEIRO Aug 10 (Reuters Life) - A Brazilian biologist is on a mission to rehabilitate circus chimpanzees, fighting in the courts to get the animals rights and freed to be treated for the trauma inflicted during lives as performers.

Microbiologist Pedro Ynterian's fascination with chimpanzees dates back to 1999 when he saved a baby chimpanzee from a circus.

As baby chimp Guga grew bigger, Ynterian realized raising him in an apartment was impractical so he took Guga to his family's farm in Sorocaba, some 60 miles west of Sao Paulo.

Now 11 years on, the Cuba-born Brazilian has become the president of the Great Ape Project (GAP) International and has transformed his 25 acre (10.1 hectare) family farm into a sanctuary home to 50 chimps rescued from circuses and zoos.

The chimps arrive scarred. Some were forced to drink alcohol to entertain humans, some have had their teeth smashed, and others were even blinded to keep them calm.

"Sometimes I make a joke saying that this place is not a sanctuary but a mental hospital because I'm dealing with mad creatures, creatures who were traumatized in zoos following years of public exposure," Ynterian told Reuters Television.

"(But) it is necessary to have a combination of a sanctuary to receive (the apes) along with political and educational work through the media so that society becomes aware that we cannot continue to harm these animals."

The Great Ape Project was founded in 1994 in the United States as an international organization to fight for the rights of non-human great apes, such as chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans such as freedom from torture and slavery.

The mission fueled the controversial debate as to whether such fundamental legal rights should extend to non-humans.

Ynterian started the GAP Project Brazil in 2000 when he set up the Sorocaba Sanctuary, with his lead followed by three other Brazilian families, opening similar sanctuaries.

Nowadays GAP Project Brazil is the headquarters of the GAP Project International

COURT BATTLES CONTINUE

Ynterian, 70, spends four days a week at the sanctuary helping care for the animals which he estimates costs around $US25,000 a month. He says the money comes from profits made by his various laboratory and bio-science companies.

In the Sorocaba Sanctuary, the chimps receive medical and psychological treatment. When possible, they are grouped in families.

Some take longer than others to adapt and have to be kept in separate areas for months before coming into contact with other chimps. The sanctuary is not open to the public.

In his quest to protect great apes, Ynterian has had to wage a long list of legal battles, initially filing lawsuits to gain custody over nearly every animal he found in poor conditions.

He said he has made some progress -- and put Brazil at the forefront of this battle.

"Nearly half of Brazil's 26 states have forbidden circuses from using great apes and other animals in their shows since 2005. Now, following mounting pressure from animal rights groups, a bill is being voted in Congress to make this law federal," he said.

His latest legal battle is to free 26-year-old chimp Jimmy, who lives in a 61 square meter cage in a zoo in Niterio city in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

Last December the GAP filed a motion asking a court to grant an order of Habeas Corpus to have Jimmy released, arguing he is being denied his rights to freedom of movement and a decent life.

The case is still in the hands of a state judge but Ynterian hopes the court ruling will set a legal precedent that may serve as an example for other countries.

A similar case in Brazil a few years ago ended without conclusion when the chimpanzee in question, Suica, mysteriously died during the court process.

Ynterian says his goal is to transform the South American country into a role model for other nations.

Some have already taken action, according to research by lawyer Deborah Rook from Northumbria University in 2009.

Britain has granted great apes a special status in relation to scientific procedures so no great apes can be used in animal experimentation.

New Zealand prohibits the use of all great apes in research, testing and teaching unless such use is in the best interests of its species.

Ynterian argues that a chimpanzee is not a pet and cannot be used as an object for fun or scientific experiment.

"He or she thinks, develops affection, hates, suffers, learns and even transmits knowledge. To sum it up, they are just like us," Ynterian says on the GAP website.

"The only difference is that they don't speak, but they communicate through gestures, sounds and facial expressions. We need to guarantee their rights to life and to liberty."

(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)

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