We’re going to take a (belated) look at the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie, which turned out to be surprisingly good. Like usual, we’re leaving more thorough evaluations of the movie’s merits as such to others, and spoilers will abound.
I. Human and Animal Testing
The lynchpin of the movie is that Will Rodman (James Franco) is an up-and-coming scientist (geneticist? biochemist?) researching a cure for Alzheimer’s, motivated in no small part by the plight of his father, who is declining fairly rapidly as his disease progresses. Rodman’s basic technique is… well we’re a little fuzzy on that one. It’s either gene therapy, whereby a virus is modified so that it replaces “bad” genes with “good” ones, or some kind of straight-up viral therapy, wherein the virus attacks damaged cells and structures, giving the body a chance to heal. The fuzziness lies in the fact that when the virus is given to apes, it seems to be gene therapy, i.e. a once-and-done treatment which permanently changes the patient, and when it’s given to his dad, it’s viral therapy, i.e. a stop-gap measure which requires regular applications and may not actually be a cure.
Either way, the film portrays animal testing reasonably well, from a legal perspective. There aren’t a ton of restrictions on what researchers can do with their animals. Wikipedia has a decent summary: basically, as long as it can be scientifically justified, and the funding can be arranged, animal experimentation is not legally problematic. The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 (USDA homepage) specifically excludes mice, rats, cold-blooded vertebrates and invertebrates. It also excludes livestock and animals used for food. Basically, we’re looking at dogs, cats, and, especially, non-human primates.
But Gen-Sys largely seems to follow the regulations that do exist. The procedures being done aren’t particularly painful, so no anesthetic is needed, and they’ve got a veterinarian on staff. There’s no mention of an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, but those are only required for researchers using federal funding, and Gen-Sys seems to be a significantly stockholder-driven enterprise.
Of course, Rodman using the virus on his dad is completely illegal, unethical, and wrong. But the movie presents it as such, so there’s not much to say beyond that.
II. Chimps and the Law
Then we get to the issue of housing Caesar at Rodman’s residence. Non-human primates are on the California Restricted Species List, meaning they are illegal to import, export, possess, or release into the wild without a permit. We know Rodman doesn’t have a permit, as he steals Caesar from the lab, so that, right there, is a problem. The California Department of Fish and Game apparently stopped issuing licenses for chimps as pets in 1992, so Rodman probably couldn’t have gotten one if he’d asked, either. As a matter of interest, Bubbles, Michael Jackon’s pet chimp, was acquired in the 1980s, so he could well have been licensed, and the DFG didn’t revoke any licenses they had issued.
Note that we said that Rodman “steals” Caesar from the lab. That’s not just a metaphor: animals, including chimps, are viewed by the legal system as personal property. They are owned, and taking them without permission is theft. So Caesar is, technically, Gen-Sys property.
It’s not at all clear that Caesar getting smart is going to change that. Here we get into our discussion of non-human intelligences, particularly “elevated” animals (See Section I). For most of the movie, Caesar, while demonstrably more intelligent than your average chimp, can’t talk or really communicate linguistically. It’s doubtful that a court would afford him personhood without that, as legal and civil rights are pretty much limited to humans under the current system, and the human/everything else distinction is pretty firmly ingrained. Still, at the end of the movie he’s talking, and assuming that the virus doesn’t wipe out all of humanity in the next few weeks, he might well be able to get legal recognition if he bothered to try.
We’ll give the movie 1-1 for its handling of major legal questions. It gets the human and animal testing things right, largely having the characters either comply with the law or explicitly break it. But it seems to paper over just how hard it would probably be to keep a chimp in one’s home, especially in a San Francisco suburb. That’s illegal, and it’s quite likely that the first time a neighbor saw him outside, the cops would have been called and Caesar removed.