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Sandra the Orangutan is a Person, Rules Argentine Court

In landmark judgment, court says that the 28-year-old Great Ape has the right to be free

Sandra, a 28-year-old orangutan who lives in a zoo in Buenos Aires, Argentina is now the first animal to be legally recognized as a person.

In a landmark judgment last Friday, an appeals court in Argentina declared that the Sumatran orangutan, who has been held captive at the zoo for 20 years, should be recognized as a nonhuman person with the right to freedom. The court ruled that Sandra, who was born in captivity in Germany in 1986, be released to an animal sanctuary in Brazil where she can live out the rest of her life in relative freedom. (Since she was born in captivity, Sandra doesn’t have the skills to survive in the wild.)

Rubi the OrangutanPhoto by Albuquerque BioParkRuby (not Sandra), a female orangutan at the ABQ BioPark Zoo in Albuquerque. Many scientific studies have shown that orangutans and other Great Apes have complex cognitive abilities as self-awareness and autonomy.

The ruling was based on a habeas corpus petition filed on Sandra’s behalf in November by the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA), which claimed that it was unjustified to confine an animal with “proven cognitive capability.”  (Habeas corpus cases are based on the legal principle that requires that an imprisoned person, or an individual who is unable to personally appear in court — for example, a severely disabled person or infant — be allowed to make a plea in court via lawyers.)

The ruling “opens the way not only for other Great Apes, but also for other sentient beings which are unfairly and arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in zoos, circuses, water parks and scientific laboratories," the association’s lawyer, Paul Buompadre, was quoted as saying in the Argentine daily, La Nacion. The zoo has 10 days to seek an appeal.

Indeed, the court’s decision is a big win for the animal rights movement since it’s the first time that a court has agreed that a nonhuman animal with complex cognitive capabilities is entitled the basic right to life and liberty — rights usually considered exclusive to humans. Many animal rights activists believe hat recognizing highly intelligent and sentient animals — like the Great Apes, dolphins, whales, and elephants — as legal persons would help protect them from held captive in fun parks and zoos or be subject to invasive experiments in laboratories.

The Argentine court decision is especially relevant to the US-based Nonhuman Rights Project, which is currently seeking similar legal rights for four captive chimpanzees in New York State.  That effort received a bit of a setback on December 4, when a New York appellate court — which was hearing the case of one of the chimpanzees named Tommy — ruled that a chimpanzee couldn’t be considered a person. (Read the Journal’s cover story, “Animals Are Persons, Too” for details on the NhRP’s legal campaign and our complex relationship with the animal world.)

“The [Argentine court] decision sets a new precedent. And while it does not directly determine how judges may rule in a court in the United States, it certainly constitutes ‘persuasive authority’ in how judges view similar cases,” the NhRP said in a press statement today.  The NhRP pointed out that while the New York court in Tommy's case had argued that “a plaintiff has to be able to bear duties and responsibilities in order to be granted a right of any kind,” the Argentine court made no mention of animals needing to have the ability to fulfill duties in order to have rights.

"We intend to bring the Argentine case to the attention of the New York appellate courts immediately as we believe it will assist the courts in reaching a similar conclusion for our chimpanzee plaintiffs," NhRP president Steven M. Wise said in a statement.

The NhRP is currently seeking permission to appeal Tommy's case to New York's highest court. It is also awaiting a decision from the intermediate appellate court on the case of one other its other chimpanzee clients — Kiko.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Managing Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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