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

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.

Orangutans at the Toronto Zoo. Photo from the Creative Commons.

Orangutans at the Toronto Zoo. Photo from the Creative Commons.

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.


That’s no monkey! That’s Kendall!

The common ancestor of great apes lived about 18 million years ago. Source: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Talk to any zoo keeper about great apes and you may see them cringe substantially when it comes to two topics. The first topic has to do with the discernment between monkeys and apes. We cringe when people reference apes as monkeys. Although both groups fall into the taxonomic order of primates, there are more differences than similarities between monkeys and apes. The most obvious morphological difference is that monkeys have tails and apes do not. But from an intellectual standpoint, the differences are substantial…not to say that monkeys are not intelligent, but apes are, by comparison, super intelligent. Apes rely more on vision than scent for survival. Apes create tools and are capable of learning and using language. They are complex problem solvers.

Great apes belong to the family Hominidae, which includes humans, bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, while gibbons and siamangs are lesser apes. If you find this classification disconcerting, I do not mean to offend anyone. Perhaps if you read Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, you will find the concept a little less threatening. In the meantime, when you visit zoos, please reference the above mentioned animals as apes, not monkeys. It is a good way to show reverence and acknowledge the importance of sharing the planet by having a greater understanding of all the creatures that live upon it.

The second cringe worthy topic is one of far greater concern and perpetually burdens the heart and mind of those of us who advocate for wildlife in general and apes in particular. That topic is apes in entertainment, particularly chimpanzees. It seems that as soon as activists have gotten one company to understand the negative impact of the use of chimpanzees in entertainment and stop the practice, another offender emerges.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classify chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) as Endangered due to high levels of exploitation, loss of habitat and habitat quality due to expanding human activities. When people see chimpanzees in entertainment, it undercuts an accurate perception of realizing that this species is endangered.

I cannot be more blunt or impassioned about this when I ask everyone reading this to boycott any product or service that uses chimpanzees for advertising or entertainment. If you cannot boycott the product or service, please take time to write the offending organization to let them know you wish for the practice to stop. The following story is one of hundreds of examples as to why I make this plea.


Kendall chimp was born on May 31, 1999 at a facility that breeds chimps to be used in entertainment. He was hand-raised and later sold to Birds and Animals Unlimited, an organization that trains a variety of animals, including chimpanzees, for use in movies, television, and live animal shows. Some may remember him as the chimp that selected the winning number for Pepsi’s Billion Dollar Sweepstakes. He even appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. When Kendall was about seven, his trainers noticed that he was beginning to challenge them when they took him out to do his shows. They realized that if he was beginning to challenge those he knew best, there was increased risk to audience members. Chimps are, pound for pound, about seven times stronger than a person. So, a 60 pound chimp could potentially seriously injure an audience member. In fact, no monkey or ape makes for a good pet.

Kendall was retired from shows and his care began to fall by the wayside. He was spending his days in a small holding area with limited stimulation, bedding, and of course, no other chimpanzees. Chimpanzees live in troops in the wild. Social structure and bonds are as important to them as they are to humans. Chimpanzees form social communities of 5 to 150 animals in the wild. An isolated life for a chimpanzee is a miserable existence.

In 2006, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan obtained and placed Kendall at the North Carolina Zoo (an AZA accredited institution), with the hope that he could be integrated into a group with 13 other chimps. From there, the dedicated keepers began the process of introducing Kendall to members of the troops at the NC Zoo. The process has taken years and he has made great strides in learning natural chimpanzee behavior. Kendall’s story has a happy ending but he is only one of so many chimpanzees that have been exploited for entertainment and science. Kendall’s story represents what I hope to be an ongoing positive story of the environment as it pertains to wildlife stewardship for all apes.

Photo courtesy of The Kendall Project

Kendall enjoying a hammock at the NC Zoo. Photo courtesy of The Kendall Project.

How Saving Orangutans Can Lower Your Cholesterol

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

In my work as a nurse coach, I often explain to my patients the finer nuances of blood cholesterol laboratory results and how changes in nutrition can improve their numbers.  One type of cholesterol, low density lipoprotein (LDL), is otherwise known as “the bad cholesterol” because it is the type of cholesterol most responsible for causing blocked arteries.  Blocked arteries increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.  Eating foods that are high in saturated fats, such as palm oil, significantly increases these risks because doing so raises LDL levels in the blood.  I liken it to pouring grease down the kitchen sink.  Eventually, the pipes are going to become clogged unless some action is taken to break up and eliminate the ever mounting accumulation of sticky goo.

Given this well established wisdom regarding palm oil’s negative effects on health, a logical expectation would be for a decreasing demand for palm oil.  Instead, demand has increased significantly.  From 2005-2012, the United States Department of Agriculture reported production and importation of palm oil had doubled.  In 2012, importation of palm oil to the U.S. was 2.7 billion pounds.  This is approximately 380 million gallons.  To give you perspective, that is 500 Olympic sized pools or more volume than was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico by BP Deepwater Horizon in 2010.

In addition to being a food additive, palm oil is used in personal care products (shampoo, lipstick), detergents, and has increasing use as biofuel.  By 2006, palm oil represented 65 percent of oil traded internationally.  Consumption of palm oil is expected to double again by 2020.

Why are we using so much palm oil?  Palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature and one of the world’s most versatile raw materials.  Oil palms are highly efficient oil producers, with each fruit containing about 50% oil. Palm oil is obtained from both the fruit flesh and kernel of the oil palm tree.  Oil palms can grow 66 feet tall with leaves up to 15 feet long. They bear clusters of fruit all year long, with each fully matured cluster weighing up to 110 pounds. This efficiency leads to land requirements that are ten times less than other oil-producing crops.

Historically, palm oil production has come at a great price to the environment, with a particularly negative impact on orangutan habitat. In 1900, there were around 315,000 orangutans. Today, fewer than 50,000 exist in the wild.  Scientists say the palm oil industry is the biggest threat to orangutans, with the potential for orangutans to be extinct in the wild within 12 years.  But there is more to the story.  I like to believe this is an emerging positive story of the environment.

There is growing movement towards sustainable palm oil production.  Certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) and palm kernel oil (CSPKO) is produced by palm oil plantations which have been independently audited and found to comply with the globally agreed environmental standards devised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO was founded in 2003 and is the world’s leading initiative on sustainable palm oil. The principal objective of RSPO is “to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil through cooperation within the supply chain and open dialogue between its stakeholders.” Forty percent of the world’s palm oil producers are members of the RSPO.  Members and participants include oil palm growers, manufacturers and retailers of palm oil products, environmental non-governmental organizations, and social non-governmental organizations.  For a list of members and other details, you may visit  The following brief video summarizes the history and development of sustainable palm oil production and the RSPO.

Of course, the single most effective way to prevent the extinction of orangutans is to protect their habitat through decreased demand for palm oil products.  For humans, that would include decreased consumption of food-like products that elevate LDL.  There are several smart phone applications developed by zoos to help you determine which products are RSPO certified and/or palm oil free.  The app developed by Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (Android) provides a searchable list by product brand name and advises if the manufacturer utilizes RSPO certified palm oil providers.  The El Paso Zoo (Android) app utilizes a bar code scanner function to check items which are in their database and only advises if the product has palm oil, regardless of source certification.  Here is the link to the El Paso Zoo iPhone app version.  The El Paso Zoo app is the better choice if you wish to avoid palm oil entirely.

There is room for everyone on this planet.  We do not have to choose between anything except how to be smarter and more humane in the equitable development and distribution of resources.  A world with more orangutans AND healthier human hearts is one example of an ideal outcome and what this nurse coach considers to be a win-win scenario.

For more information about orangutans, please visit the factsheet provided by the World Wildlife Fund