Friday, February 27, 2009

Arrest the Man in the Yellow Hat!

I don't oppose the Captive Primate Safety Act, which recently passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate. As just about every responsible person to comment on the legislation has observed, non-human primates are not domestic animals, and thus it is neither in their interests nor in the interests of human beings for non-human primates to be kept as pets. I would have an easier time taking seriously the professed concern for the welfare of non-human primates were they not subject to medical experimentation of the most awful sort, but this sort of hypocrisy---protecting some non-human animals while vastly larger numbers of non-human animals that are morally indistinguishable are subjected to horrific treatment---is commonplace and may even mark the beginning of a broader change for the better (as Sherry discussed in a FindLaw column on Michael Vick).

Here I'd like to make a different sort of point, however. Do we need a "Husband and Boyfriend Safety Act? According to the numbers quoted in various news stories and editorials (such as this one), there have been about 100 attacks on humans by pet monkeys and apes over the last 10 years, and there are currently about 15,000 non-human primate pets in the U.S. Is that a lot or a little? Well, let's compare it to domestic violence committed by human primates. According to the American Bar Association, a little over 2 million people (mostly women but a large number of men too) "are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States." There are about 300 million humans in the U.S., and if we assume that each person physically assaulted is physically assaulted by a different human (which is not strictly true but true enough for this back-of-the-envelope calculation), that means that in any given year, the odds of any particular human physically attacking an intimate human partner is about 1 in 150, or 10 TIMES THE ANNUAL RATE OF PHYSICAL ATTACK BY NON-HUMAN PRIMATES ON ANY HUMAN.

So, if the tragic case of Travis warrants banning the interstate transportation of non-human primates to be kept as domestic pets on grounds of safety to humans, then the case is ten times stronger for a similar ban on the movement of humans.

But wait, you say. Chimpanzees are, pound-for-pound, much stronger than humans, and so the attacks aren't equivalent. Well, maybe, but we also need to take account of the fact that the attacks by humans often involve weapons that lead to still worse outcomes. Non-human primates are capable of using guns and knives if they have access to them, but they typically do not do so.

Okay, but what about the fact that attacks by non-human primate pets are likely under-reported, given that they can lead to the animal's confiscation or even death? That's true, but domestic violence is also under-reported and while we're at it, we should note that we're comparing human apples to ape and monkey bananas: the stats I quoted above are for ALL attacks by non-human primate pets, whereas the attacks by humans are only for attacks on intimate partners. If one includes all attacks by humans on humans the odds look even worse.

So, if we take the logic of the Captive Primate Safety Act seriously, then we should extend its logic to humans. Indeed, humans are a much easier case. We might amend the Mann Act---which forbids transporting any person across state lines for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or other illicit sexual conduct---to forbid taking any person across state lines for any purpose. This would obviously be crazy.

What then justifies the Captive Primate Safety Act? One possibility is that the cost-benefit analysis is different for humans and non-human primates: We get much more out of relationships with our fellow human beings than we get out of relationships with non-human primates. I agree with this for myself. Although I am happy to raise my human daughters and to care for my two canine pets, I think that I would be driven mad by trying to care for a chimp, a baboon, or a lemur---especially having now read what it involves (here). Still, there are lots of people who don't want to raise children, or care for cats or dogs, and who might find the idea of doing so incomprehensible; we ordinarily leave that to individual choice.

That brings us to the other possibility: that the Captive Primate Safety Act is justified on the basis of the safety of the non-human primates. It probably is so justified, but as noted above, this is hard to take seriously as a causal account, given the horrible ways in which non-human primates can be treated in other contexts. Moreover, it's worth recalling that the precipitating incident for the House passage of the Captive Primate Safety Act was a chimp attack on a human being that left the human victim literally without a face. True, the chimp also died, but it is very hard to imagine the case having gained the traction it had if a chimp had died in captivity without having first inflicted great harm on a human.

The fact that the Captive Primate Safety Act may be justified on balance may thus end up being almost purely fortuitous. The salience heuristic (which I discussed here) led the House to focus on the dangers of keeping non-human primates as pets because of one high-profile case. Legislation in response to spectacular events can be beneficial, but it raises serious questions about legislative agenda-setting and will often result in laws that neglect hidden costs.

Posted by Mike Dorf