By Aron Solomon
Sunday, a 40-year-old spider monkey and much-beloved resident of the El Paso Zoo, was reportedly one of the monkeys in the viral video last weekend in which a Texas woman fed two spider monkeys Hot Cheetos.
According to a report in Inside Edition, the woman was fired by the law firm she worked for not only because she endangered the primates but also took the video of her act, which quickly became Internet-famous, which is almost never a good thing.
Her former firm called her illegal entry into the El Paso primate enclosure “irresponsible and reckless,” and sent their thoughts out to the spider monkeys, Libby and Sunday, for having to endure this “traumatic experience.” Sunday is 40 years old and the trauma to her system of ingesting such a species-inappropriate snack as Hot Cheetos could have caused her irreparable harm or even death.
For those unfamiliar with the charms of truly beautiful El Paso, Hot Cheetos are a local favorite, eaten directly out of the bag or with a local’s twist of lime, sour cream, hot sauce, or even cream cheese. As much as many humans of El Paso love this snack, last weekend’s events are being poorly digested in this notably humane city. El Paso embraced a community approach to becoming a “no-kill” city on the core belief that every animal in their humane society can be saved.
Personal injury attorney Charlie Cartwright, a passionate animal advocate, points out that legal consequences here are likely:
“At an absolutely minimum, feeding a zoo primate or animal a salty, spicy, human junk food snack is negligent. Depending upon the intent of the person, which could include what other foods or substances the animal was given, and whether the person intended to harm them for the purposes of creating and publishing their viral video, greater legal liability could possibly attach.”
In several countries around the world, including Germany, primates such as Libby and Sunday have rights under a legal doctrine called “Great Ape Personhood.” This is a movement to extend personhood and some legal protections to the non-human members of the great ape family.
Dr. Anja Peters, a prominent veterinarian with her own practice in Berlin, offers this perspective:
“It has been for 20 years now in Germany that we guarantee by our constitution animal rights. These laws prevent types of abuse, such as in how animals may be kept and transported. As so many Germans love our animals, the law was a nice extension of our culture.”
That vote was actually an historic 543-19 victory in Germany’s lower House of Parliament add the phrase “and animals” to a clause obliging the nation to respect and protect the dignity of humans.
So who can assert the legal rights of primates in a situation such as this? Obviously the capital S State asserts the rights in the United States on behalf of the primate or any animal who was abused. Yes, there is the irony that zoos may seek to protect the rights of primates or animals as there is an ongoing ethical debate that the zoos themselves are cruel and outdated.
There can also be a logical, if not yet practical, extension of the argument that as primates and animals are accorded more legal rights, they themselves could bring legal action. If you’re a dog fan you’ve probably seen some of those Internet memes about how dogs communicate directly with people through the use of some machines, including some that have soundboards with buttons they can tap to communicate massages. This is going to be a growth area over the next decade as technology and animal advocates continue to work together to find more meaningful and accurate ways for primates and animals to communicate with humans.
So it is not unrealistic that there will come a point where a primate or animal who has ensured a wrongful act or other violation of their “personhood” could bring suit in a manner more closely resembling how each of us can bring a suit seeking a remedy on a tortious action.
As to how these rights can evolve in the future, Dr. Peters explains that Germany’s philosophy here is beginning to spread, as is the impact of their laws:
“In general, yes, we have a „Tierschutzgesetz“ but in the UK this concept is new, with scientific more evidences that animals „can feel“ just as we do. That’s the next step to protect them more and more and see them as an feeling and sensible beings who deserve the same law protections we do.”
And this is exactly what’s happening this week in El Paso. Now that the woman’s identity has been confirmed through her video footage, the El Paso zoo is acting as swifty in pressing charges against her as her legal employer did when they fired her. Aside from the risk of harm by feeding Libby and Sunday the high-sodium processed corn chip, the zoo has made it clear that the spider monkeys were very much at risk of being infected with COVID-19.
An El Paso Times article on this pointed out that the woman went as far as to “hop a fence, climb through some bushes, drop down into a four-feet deep moat, walk across the moat and then try to feed the spider monkeys,” putting herself in sufficiently close proximity to infect them.
While what happened in El Paso presents compelling legal and ethical scenarios, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that this didn’t end infinitely worse for all creatures great and small. Spider monkeys are far stronger than we might imagine. They have canine teeth, mobile shoulder joints, hook-like hands, and claws that can cause massive human damage, especially given that they can cover up to 30 feet with a singular arm movement. If there ever was a “don’t try this at home kids,” story, El Paso last weekend provided the perfect one.
This article originally appeared on Law.com.