VIENNA, Austria - In some ways, Hiasl is like any other Viennese: He indulges a weakness for pastry, likes to paint, and enjoys chilling out watching TV.
But he doesn't care for coffee, and he isn't actually a person - at least not yet.
In a case that could set a global legal precedent for granting basic rights to apes, animal-rights advocates want to get the 26-year-old male chimpanzee legally declared a person.
Hiasl's supporters argue he needs that status to become a legal entity that can receive donations and get a guardian to look out for his interests.
"Our main argument is that Hiasl is a person and has basic legal rights," said Eberhart Theuer, a lawyer leading the challenge on behalf of the Association Against Animal Factories, a Vienna animal-rights group.
"We mean the right to life, the right to not be tortured, the right to freedom under certain conditions," Theuer said. "We're not talking about the right to vote here."
The campaign began after the animal sanctuary where Hiasl (pronounced HEE-zul) and another chimp, Rosi, have lived for 25 years went bankrupt.
Activists want to ensure the apes don't wind up homeless if the shelter closes. Both have already suffered: They were captured as babies in Sierra Leone in 1982 and smuggled in a crate to Austria for use in pharmaceutical experiments. Customs officers intercepted the shipment and put the chimps in the shelter.
Their food and veterinary bills run about $6,800 a month. Donors have offered to help, but there's a catch: Under Austrian law, only a person can receive personal donations.
Organizers could set up a foundation to collect cash for Hiasl, whose life expectancy in captivity is about 60 years. But without basic rights, they contend, he could be sold to someone outside Austria, where the chimp is protected by strict animal-cruelty laws.
Austria isn't the only country where primate rights are being debated. Spain's parliament is considering a bill that would endorse the Great Ape Project, a Seattle-based international initiative to extend "fundamental moral and legal protections" to apes.
If Hiasl gets a guardian, "it will be the first time the species barrier will have been crossed for legal 'personhood,' " said Jan Creamer, chief executive of Animal Defenders International, which is working to end the use of primates in research.
Paula Stibbe, a Briton who teaches English in Vienna, petitioned a district court to be Hiasl's legal trustee. On April 24, Judge Barbara Bart rejected her request, ruling Hiasl didn't meet two key tests: He is neither mentally impaired nor in an emergency.
Although Bart expressed concern that awarding Hiasl a guardian could imply that animals enjoy the same legal status as humans, she didn't rule that he could never be considered a person.
Martin Balluch, who heads the Association Against Animal Factories, has asked a federal court to rule on guardianship.
"Chimps share 99.4 percent of their DNA with humans," he said. "OK, they're not Homo sapiens. But they're obviously also not things - the only other option the law provides."
See an animal-rights group's report on Hiasl
via http://go.philly.com/chimp EndText