Saving Charlie: Lebanese Ruling Recognizes the Independent Interests of Animals

2014-11-03    |   

The relationship between human beings and animals has long been the subject of philosophical speculation about human nature. Animals remind humans that their existential status is predetermined, and that they are also living creatures who are different from animals, yet similar at the same time. Although the Cynic school of philosophy, led by Diogenes, viewed animals as a model for humans, positive law has long distinguished humans from animals by categorizing animals as chattels. In other words, animals are possessions that can be freely disposed of, used and exploited. The law refused to recognize animals as legal persons with rights or obligations.

However, in recent decades, several legal systems have increasingly seen initiatives to ensure the protection of animals, including calls to reclassify animals as legal beings, rather than possessions. In light of these initiatives, the legal systems of several countries have seen basic changes in terms of how to deal with animals. These laws have emphasized the need to protect animals, to restrict the rights that arise from private ownership, and to reconsider the legal status of animals as moveable assets like any other assets.[1]

In Lebanon, two judicial rulings issued recently in the case of the chimpanzee Charlie fall under such initiatives. The first ruling was by a magistrate in Kesrouane on March 27, 2014. The second, issued half a year later on September 25, 2014, was by Interim Relief (or Summary Affairs) judge in Metn, Antoine Touma.

The details of the case are as follows: Since entering Lebanon in 2004 at the age of one month, a chimpanzee called Charlie had been passed on from one owner to another at a private zoo. In 2006, after a complaint to the public prosecutor in the courts of cassation that apes -including Charlie- had been brought into Lebanon illegally, the initial owner of the zoo was questioned, appointed as Charlie’s legal guardian, and then referred by the appeals public prosecutor in Mount Lebanon to the magistrate in Kesrouane.

The complaint was ignored for seven years without any effective steps taken and Charlie fell into oblivion. On October 22, 2013, Animals Lebanon, an animal welfare organization, submitted a direct complaint to the magistrate in Kesrouane against the owner of the zoo. The organization cited Article 770 of the Penal Code which penalizes violations of administrative regulations. As a result, a ruling was issued in absentia on March 27, 2014, requiring the owner of the zoo to hand Charlie over to Animals Lebanon.

However, when the premises were inspected to implement the ruling, it emerged that in 2009, the original owner of the private zoo had relinquished the project, including Charlie, to someone else. Animals Lebanon filed a new suit against the new owner to the judge in the Summary Affairs Court in Metn, and as a result, on April 3, 2014, the judge issued a decision that the ape should be moved from that zoo to the zoo of a third person in the town of Aley, in preparation for sending him to a sanctuary in Brazil that rehabilitates such animals. The new owner of the zoo protested. He argued that he owned Charlie and continued to provide the animal an environment of care and protection. The judge in the Metn Summary Affairs Court rejected the owner’s argument, saying that intervention was needed to put an end to the suffering of the chimpanzee. Charlie had to be moved to the zoo in Aley in preparation for sending him to the sanctuary in Brazil.

The two rulings were unusual in the context of Lebanon. For the first time in the history of Lebanese jurisprudence, rulings endorse the principle of “protecting an animal for the sake of the animal”, and the principle of “protecting an animal for the sake of nature”.

Protecting an Animal for the Animal’s Own Sake

Animals are living creatures that experience pain if they are mistreated. Their sensation is not limited to physical pain, but also includes psychological pain. This was the essence of the two relevant rulings with respect to the recognition of animals’ suffering and their capacity to feel. The ruling issued by the Summary Affairs judge in Metn was based initially on the fact that there was an urgent need to take protective measures, given that Charlie was shown to be suffering “physically and psychologically”.

Physically, Charlie was suffering from muscular atrophy in the right leg and could not stand or walk on his legs in a normal manner. Both legs were deformed with his fractured femur not having completely healed. His condition caused him pain and suffering and he had not received the necessary treatment or medical follow-up. Psychologically, he was living alone, which caused him more suffering. He had been put in a cage without contact with other chimpanzees. It is widely recognized that chimpanzees are intelligent and highly social animals. Living alone was likely to cause him suffering, according to the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), a UN-affiliated organization.

The summary affairs judge recognized that the animal had a special interest in being assured “an appropriate environment that guaranteed him a life that was compatible with his nature as an ape.” This attitude towards animals constituted a break with the tradition of Lebanese law, which ensures protection of animals only in the context of humans and their property. Articles 762 and 763 of the Penal Code, under the chapter entitled Mistreatment of Animals, stipulate that acts which harm animals are punishable only when they involve indirect harm to humans. The mistreatment of wild animals, for instance, is punishable only when it takes place in public. The purpose of criminalizing such acts lies in protecting public morals by sparing other humans unpleasant scenes in public.[3] In this respect, the ruling by the Summary Affairs judge constitutes a qualitative leap that liberates animals from their status as property, by asserting that they have an independent interest in living in a proper environment and having their physical and psychological welfare protected.

Although the ruling did not refer directly to the interest and the legal standing of the organization that filed suit, it did implicitly recognize them. This is essential to ensure effective protection of animals.

Protecting Animals for the Sake of Nature

The ruling also signals that Lebanon is committed to an international struggle [for animal protection], and to cooperating with other states towards the uncontroversial aim of better ecological protection. By citing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which Lebanon joined in 2103, the ruling completely rejected the illegal trade in endangered animals motivated by purely material incentives in violation of the international bond of humanity.

Orders by the Summary Affairs judge to move Charlie into the zoo in Aley before sending him to Brazil were based on Article 8 of the CITES treaty. The article states that animals covered by the treaty should be brought into custody and returned to the countries from which they were exported, or to a center that specializes in the protection of these animals. Since Charlie had entered Lebanon illegally, he was entitled to the protections outlined in article 8.

The ruling reinforced the concept of common interest of humans, animals, and nature, as the preservation of the ecological system they form is necessary for the sustainability of humanity itself. In his detailed explanation of his ruling, the Summary Affairs judge said that humans need protection and that, if Charlie intermingled with children and people in general, there was a risk that viruses and germs would be transmitted in both directions thereby jeopardizing the health of each.

For his part, Judge Touma did not hesitate to reiterate the limits of private ownership, as he has in several rulings.[4] He said that the duty to protect animals transcends the right of ownership, which must take second place to a natural priority that is of greater importance. “Protecting animals that are in danger of extinction reflects the civilized aspect of states and their commitment to international agreements that protect these animals, in light of how society in a particular country deals with issues of animal protection,” he added.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] Jean-Pierre Marguénaud & Olivier Dubois,  “Animaux et Droits Européens : Au-Delà de la Distinction Entre les Hommes et les Choses”, éd. Pedone: 2009.

[2] Wilfrid Jeandidier. Mélanges Chavanne. Litec: 1990, p. 81.

[3] Jean-Pierre Marguénaud. “L’Animal dans le Nouveau Code Pénal”, Recueil Dalloz, 1995, p. 187.

[4] See: Youmna Makhlouf’s, “Lebanese Courts Adopt the Principle That Safety Comes Above All Other Considerations”, The Legal Agenda, April 21, 2014.

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