Sentient Sandra and a Landmark Ruling on Animal Rights

This nearly mature male orang utan (Jenggo) was released several years ago from the Frankfurt Zoological Society Reintroduction Centre in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of WWF and obtained at © Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Indonesia
This nearly mature male orangutan (Jenggo) was released several years ago from the Frankfurt Zoological Society Reintroduction Centre in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia.
Photo courtesy of WWF and obtained at–3
© Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Indonesia

By Maymie Higgins

Last month, amid the holiday hustle and bustle and with little fanfare, a landmark legal ruling in the world history of animal rights occurred in Argentina. The ruling concerned an orangutan named Sandra, a resident of the Buenos Aires zoo for the last twenty years. The court ruled that Sandra was considered a “nonhuman being” and she was granted basic rights, such as life, freedom and a premise of “no harm” either physically or psychologically. Argentina’s Federal Chamber of Criminal Cassation ruled the primate is a subject of law, “a nonhuman being that has certain rights, and can enforce them through legal procedure,” according to Andrés Gil Domínguez, Sandra’s attorney. Previously in Argentina, as in the rest of the world, the law interpreted animals as things.

Lawyers for Argentina’s Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights (Afada) had argued that Sandra was “a person” in the philosophical, not biological, sense. They argued further that she was in a situation of illegal deprivation of freedom as a “non-human person” and had filed a “habeas corpus” writ in her favor last November over “the unjustified confinement of an animal with probable cognitive capability.” The court judges had rejected the writ several times before deciding finally that Sandra could be considered to have rights to freedom which needed defending.

Sandra was born in 1986 in a German zoo and was transferred to the Buenos Aires zoo in September 1994. She was considered to be shy and regularly tried to avoid the public in her enclosure.

The Buenos Aires zoo has 10 working days to seek an appeal, after which time there are plans to transfer Sandra to a sanctuary to live out the rest of her years. Captive orangutans have been known to live as long as 60 years, while the average lifespan of a wild orangutan is 35-45 years.

Afada lawyer Paul Buompadre was quoted as saying by La Nacion newspaper: “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.”

Similar cases are occurring more frequently. A U.S. court this month rejected a similar case regarding a privately owned chimpanzee in New York. The court ruled that “Tommy’ was not a “person” entitled to the rights and protections afforded by habeas corpus.

In 2011, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit against Sea World, alleging five wild-captured orca whales were treated like slaves. A San Diego court dismissed the case.

As one with experience working in zoos and aquariums, I am heartened by the progression of mankind towards consideration of the sentience of animals, albeit slow progress. There would be no captive animals in a perfect world, but the world is far from perfect. Man kept captive animals as long ago as the Neolithic era, possibly earlier. In the U.S. alone, 175 million people visit AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums annually. Therefore, there is still much to achieve towards establishment of animal rights and a movement away from animals in captivity. A shy, unassuming orangutan named Sandra has quite possibly set us upon a new path. She will be known by name among the masses and for decades to come. Her name will be in all the relevant college texts and legal briefs.

I am already her biggest fan.

Featured image: Orangutans at the Toronto Zoo courtesy of Creative Commons.

12 thoughts on “Sentient Sandra and a Landmark Ruling on Animal Rights

  1. All nonhuman beings are sentient. How do I know? Because I’ve been keeping budgies in my Brooklyn home since 1999. They’re perky and smart, they bicker and cuddle. And they’re captives. I’ve been torn about this for years…

    1. The issue of captive animals is difficult.

      On the one hand, the practice of keeping captive animals has been directly responsible for saving multiple animal species. For example, were it not for captive California condors, red wolves, black-footed ferrets and more which were used to supplement wild populations, those animal species may be gone forever by now. And it is difficult to be a purist about leaving wild animals in the wild only when their wild homes are being destroyed by development and human encroachment.

      On the other hand, to be wild is the birthright of all wildlife.

      The core of the problem is the anthropocentric view that man and beast are two separate entities, when in fact we are deeply and elaborately intertwined.

  2. If we could always do the what was right for the animals that would of course be best. I imagine that means sometimes a few would be captive and others would not.

    1. It is an angst-ridden topic for sure, and one that troubles me daily. It is through writing that I hope to make my own small contribution in moving the cause of animal rights forward.

  3. As a previous zookeeper, I find this an interesting and well written piece. Like many, for me animals should be wild and it’s a true sorrow we keep them as we do but in many cases for understandable reasons. Sadly I feel that we are downward spiral with regards to our ecosystems and their inhabitants, so it is nice to occasionally see a ‘win’ for species.

    1. Thank you for the compliment.

      I am heartened by increasing public pressure to move away from animals in captivity. Although the general public may not understand how challenging and sophisticated that issue is, majority opinion appears to be sold on the principle of wildlife having wild homes only. Hopefully, that will progress towards and yield protection of more wild habitat and quickly!

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