Column is it still going on?: the monkey whisperers

The macaque Naruto took a selfie and Peta sued over image rights. But what does the monkey actually want?

Is Peta just shorthand for paternalism? Photo: tom

Because Naruto snapped a selfie of himself on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in 2011, the whole world knows him. The picture was shared hundreds of thousands of times on social networks because what it shows looks so human: a macaque baring two rows of teeth, which passes for a smile in human interpretations of facial expressions.

Because the U.S. animal rights organization Peta is suing David Slater, the British photographer with whose camera the monkey selfie was taken is broke. So broke, in fact, that supporters – including many photographers – recently initiated a crowdfunding campaign to enable Slater to pay the legal costs and take part in the negotiations in the United States.

Who owns the right to the image? The monkey who pressed the shutter release? Or Slater, the owner of the camera? What lies behind this question is a fundamental decision that Peta, an animal rights organization and not an animal welfare organization ,is doggedly fighting for.

What Peta has been demanding for decades, in the tradition of Australian philosopher Peter Singer, is nothing less than that "non-human animals" should be entitled to equal consideration of their interests. This would remove the hierarchy that has been in place until now, according to which humans are above animals because they (supposedly?) possess qualities (language, logical thinking, etc.) that animals lack.

The ability to suffer

Animal rights activists argue that instead, the ability to suffer should be the basis for the equality of all living beings. They speak of "speciesism" when one species (human) discriminates against another (animal).

A forward-looking concept. In an ideal world that is always worth thinking about, it is conceivable that one day we will all live as equals among equals. But what we urgently need to solve for that is the problem of communication.

The fact that Peta is going to court in Naruto’s name has a catch that is also known from other emancipation movements: that of paternalism. Peta doesn’t want to make money from the selfie, said Peta attorney Jeffrey Kerr, but to manage the proceeds and give 100 percent to the endangered macaques. But the question is: Does Naruto even want that?