Landmark Ruling: An Orangutan Is a “Non-Human Person” With Rights, Says Argentina.


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Landmark Ruling: An Orangutan Is a “Non-Human Person” With Rights, Says Argentina.

by Susan Bird

One orangutan in Argentina has just done something no other ape has ever done. She has achieved the unprecedented legal status of a “non-human person.” A court has recognized that she has rights and that being kept in a zoo unlawfully deprives her of her freedom.

In November, the Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA) filed for habeas corpus, a petition usually used to challenge the imprisonment of a human who has been illegally detained. Instead, this petition sought freedom for Sandra, a Sumatran orangutan.

Sandra has spent the last 20 years of her life at the Buenos Aires Zoo. In 1986, she was born into captivity at a German zoo. Nine years later she was sent to Argentina. Sandra is described as very shy, with a marked preference for avoiding the stares of zoo visitors. A lady likes her privacy, after all.

AFADA’s case asserted “the unjustified confinement of an animal with probable cognitive capability” illegally deprived a “non-human person” of her freedom. AFADA insisted Sandra was a person in a philosophic sense, rather than a biological one. In other words, she’s not human, but she deserves certain equivalent rights.

A three-member panel of Argentina’s Second Chamber of the Criminal Appeals Court unanimously granted habeas corpus, deciding that Sandra is a “juridical person” rather than an object. Under the law, a juridical person is a non-human entity — for example a corporation — that possesses the legal status of personhood.

translation of the Argentine court’s decision said, in part:

From a dynamic rather than static legal interpretation, it is necessary to ascribe to the animal the character of the subject of rights, since nonhuman subjects (animals) are rights-bearers, and thus their protection is guaranteed in the corresponding area.

AFADA asked that Sandra “be able to live among individuals of the same sort and in an appropriate place.” Having been raised in captivity, Sandra can never return to the wild. However, if the Buenos Aires Zoo does not appeal to the country’s Supreme Court within 10 working days, Sandra will move to the relative freedom of an ape sanctuary in Brazil.

New York Says a Chimpanzee Is Not a Person

Those who follow this issue closely will remember that this isn’t the first time activists have sought personhood for an ape. In New York, on Dec. 4, 2104, an appeals court ruled that Tommy the chimpanzee is not a person.

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) sought to free Tommy from his “dungeon-like” cage and remove him from his “owner” by having him declared a person with a right to be free. The court disagreed with this stance. It held:

So far as legal theory is concerned, a person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights and duties. Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions.

NhRP activists say they’ll appeal on behalf of Tommy. Perhaps Sandra’s case will influence that appeal? Time will tell.

Waiting to See if the Zoo Will Appeal

The Buenos Aires Zoo isn’t happy, of course, and says the court’s decision unduly humanizes an animal.

“Orangutans are solitary, tranquil animals that only come together to mate and care for their young,” the zoo’s chief biologist Adrian Sestelo told La Nacion newspaper. “Unjustifiably claiming abuse, stress or depression of the animal, out of ignorance of the biology of the species, is to fall into one of the most common mistakes of human beings, which is the humanization of any animal behavior. Sandra enjoys exceptional care and lives in solitude because it is required of her kind.”

Perhaps so, Mr. Sestelo, but living in a zoo is most certainly not “required of her kind.” Forcible captivity — not whether an orangutan prefers solitude — is the question being resolved here.

“This 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,” AFADA lawyer Paul Buompadre told La Nacion.

Buompadre foresees the possibility of other lawsuits on behalf of animals in captivity, if Sandra ultimately prevails. Let’s hope she does. Sandra deserves sanctuary and freedom, not captivity. She doesn’t want people staring at her anymore.

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