She may look like an ordinary orangutan, but Sandra is a pioneer. The 28-year-old great ape, who has been held captive at the Buenos Aires Zoo for two decades, is legally a “person,” according to an Argentine court.
The ruling came after the animal rights group Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA) filed a habeas corpus petition in Sandra’s behalf, arguing that her plight constituted “unjustified confinement of an animal with proven cognitive ability.” The lawyers pointed out that, just like humans, other great apes can reason and form relationships and are capable of feeling frustrated and depressed by captivity, making Sandra’s imprisonment at the zoo an illegal infringement on her liberty.
The judges unanimously agreed that Sandra is a “non-human person [who] has some basic human rights” and ruled that she should be transferred to a sanctuary.
The word “orangutan” literally means “person of the forest” in Malay. In the Borneo jungles where they belong, orangutans spend most of their lives walking, swinging, and climbing through dense rainforests. These highly intelligent great apes are known to create tools, using leaves as umbrellas and as cups to drink water. They also build elaborate nests that demonstrate “sophisticated tool use and construction skills,” according to University of Manchester researcher Roland Ennos. “They show a lot of engineering know-how in how they build their nests.”
Orangutans are semi-solitary and value their privacy, but in zoos, they are constantly surrounded by crowds. They are denied the opportunity to learn critical life skills or engage in activities that are meaningful to them.
Sandra’s case is not the first in which a habeas corpus argument has been used. PETA made a similar argument when we sued SeaWorld in behalf of the wild-captured orcas held captive there, who we argued are treated like slaves. While the court dismissed our case, the court of public opinion seems to be on our side, with SeaWorld facing plummeting ticket sales, profits, and stock prices.
Sandra’s landmark victory “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,” said AFADA lawyer Paul Buompadre.
What You Can Do
Until all captive animals get the legal protection they deserve, please never patronize any zoos or marine parks.