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Legal battle: My son, the chimp

British teacher takes him toys, watches TV and has a laugh with him. Now she wants to be his legal guardian to save him from vivisection By Marie Woolf, Political Editor Published: 08 April 2007

A British woman has launched a court challenge to become the legal guardian of a 160lb chimpanzee in a test case that could confer basic rights on apes across Europe.

Paula Stibbe, 38, a teacher who lives in Vienna, has applied to the Austrian courts to take legal responsibility for a 26-year-old male chimpanzee which, she fears, could be subjected to laboratory tests unless given legal "rights".

Animal-welfare organisations see it as a test case that would give special legal status to the great apes. It comes as MEPs make a fresh attempt to ban animal testing on primates across Europe.

Ms Stibbe, who is originally from Brighton, befriended Hiasl the chimp eight years ago and now visits him every week, bringing biscuits and his favourite Viennese pastries, clothes, including wellington boots, and art materials.

The ape, which has lived in an Austrian animal sanctuary most of his life after being rescued by customs officials as a baby, faces an uncertain future after the sanctuary ran out of cash.

Ms Stibbe, who spends hours with Hiasl each week, says she regards him as a "friend" and is horrified about the prospect of him being transported to a laboratory. If her application to become his legal guardian is successful, she would be responsible for making decisions about his welfare.

Ms Stibbe told The Independent on Sunday her visits to Hiasl were "like visiting a friend". She plays hide and seek and watches wildlife programmes with him.

"He likes being tickled and he likes dressing-up clothes," she said. "He is especially fond of wellington boots... He likes drawing with coloured chalk, mostly scribbling.

"He laughs a lot and is very gentle with me, even though he has the strength of seven men. He has a special greeting for me and tweaks my nose between his middle and index finger when I arrive. He enjoys watching TV, and is specially fond of wildlife documentaries. I showed him a video of gorillas, and when two gorillas were mating he was completely fascinated by them.

"I want to make sure that he has a fully secure future, and not end up in a lab abroad."

Hiasl was captured as a one-year-old in Sierra Leone and smuggled to Austria, where he was bound for a vivisection lab. He was found by customs officers after surviving the journey to Europe in a box, and was taken in by the sanctuary.

Unless he is granted basic legal rights he could be sent abroad to a laboratory when the sanctuary closes. The case follows moves in New Zealand and Spain to give rights to great apes, which share about 98 per cent of their DNA with humans.

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