Society

Orangutan Granted Limited Human Rights As 'Non-Human' Person

| by Phyllis M Daugherty

In November animal rights campaigners filed a habeas corpus petition--a document usually provided to challenge the legality of a human's detention or imprisonment–in the Buenos Aires court on behalf of a 29-year-old Sumatran orangutan, named Sandra, who has spent most of her life at the Buenos Aires zoo, the Telegraph reports.

Sandra was born into captivity in Germany and was then transferred to Argentina two decades ago. The fundamental issue posed to the court was whether Sandra should be treated as a "person" or a "thing."

Attorneys for AFADA (the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights) argued the ape had sufficient cognitive functions that she should not be treated as an object and deserved the basic rights of a "non-human person.” The court agreed. 

The court recognized Sandra as a “non-human" unlawfully deprived of its freedom, the Buenos Aires media announced on Sunday.

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"Following a dynamic … judicial interpretation, it is necessary to recognize that the animal is subject to rights, and should be protected," read the Dec. 18 ruling, reports the FDL Reporter.

Andres Gil Dominguez, who represented Sandra, told the Associated Press that the "unprecedented" ruling paves the way for the habeas corpus rights to be accepted by the courts and for Sandra to be released at a sanctuary.

“It sets a precedent that changes the paradigm of animal guardianship and will impact their rights. … It will lead to a lot of discussions. From this ruling forward … the discussion will be whether captivity in itself damages their rights,” Dominguez stated.

Adrian Sestelo, the Buenos Aires zoo's head of biology, disagrees, according to Reuters. In discussing the nature of orangutans, he told La Nación they are calm, solitary animals which come together only to mate and care for their young.

"When you don't know the biology of a species, to unjustifiably claim it suffers abuse, is stressed or depressed, is to make one of man's most common mistakes, which is to humanize animal behaviour,” he said, according to the Telegraph.

If there is no appeal by the zoo within 10 days, Sandra will be transferred to a sanctuary in Brazil, where she can enjoy greater space and freedom.

NEW YORK COURT DENIES 'LEGAL PERSONHOOD' TO CHIMPANZEE

In a landmark case in America earlier this month, a New York appeals court ruled that a chimpanzee, named Tommy, is not entitled to the rights of a human and does not have to be freed by its owner, Reuters reports.

The three-judge Appellate Division panel was unanimous in denying "legal personhood" to Tommy, who lives in constant isolation in a cage in Fulton County in upstate New York, stating that primates are incapable of bearing the responsibilities that come with having legal rights.

In October, Steven Wise, attorney for the Nonhuman Rights Project, made a fervent plea to the appeals court, stating that the chimp's living conditions “are akin to a person in unlawful solitary confinement.”

Wise argued that animals with human qualities, such as chimps, deserve basic rights, including freedom from imprisonment, but the appeals court opined there is neither precedent nor legal basis for treating animals as persons.

The Albany court’s five-judge panel determined that, although Wise had shown that 26-year-old Tommy is an autonomous creature, it was not possible for the ape to understand the social contract that binds humans together.

However, according to Reuters, in seeking a ruling that Tommy had been unlawfully imprisoned by his owner Patrick Lavery, attorney Wise argued that the chimp should be released to a sanctuary in Florida.

Lavery agreed with the judges, contending that Tommy receives state-of-the-art care and was on a sanctuary waiting list. “It will be my decision where he goes and not someone else’s,” Lavery said, according to The Star.

Reuters points out that Tommy’s fate may not rest solely in Lavery’s hands. Justice Peters wrote for the court that, while chimps could not be granted legal rights, Wise could lobby the state legislature to create new protections for chimps and other intelligent animals.

CAN SANDRA OPEN THE WAY FOR GREAT APES AND OTHERS?

Paul Buompadre, attorney for AFADA, told La Nación that the decision regarding Sandra, “…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."

Sources: Telegraph, FDL Reporter, Court Records, The Star, Reuters / Photo Credit: Provided Photo, Yahoo News