A court in Argentina has ruled that a 29-year-old Sumatran orangutan called Sandra – who has been in captivity in a Buenos Aires zoo for 20 years – is a “nonhuman person” and entitled to more freedom after an animal rights group filed a writ demanding her release.
“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,” Paul Muompadre, the lawyer for Afada, the organisation that brought the legal action, told reporters.
Subject to any appeal Sandra will be on her way to a nature sanctuary in Brazil.
The repercussions of the case could be enormous as it is likely to encourage other animal rights groups to bring similar actions.
Certainly the historic judgment has been well received.
“It’s another step in the way of recognising the sentience and personhood of animals, which we need to do for all animals not just the giant apes. Zoos are a freak show from the Victorian era.”
Daniel Turner, programmes manager for the Born Free Foundation which campaigns for the phasing out of zoos, also welcomed the news.
“We do not believe sentient creatures who are intelligent like ourselves should be kept captive in conditions which are not suited to the species.”
However Turner also said he thought releases from zoos need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s not just a question of an animal being in a zoo or being released. It’s a question of where the animal is to be relocated and the conditions there and having a proper assessment.”
If a spate of legal cases is brought there could be problems if zoos are compelled to release too many animals at once.
“It’s for this reason we favour the gradual phasing out of zoos,” says Turner. “There are 4,000 in Europe alone and if they all closed at once, or many of them did, there would be incredible pressure regarding the relocating of animals.”
There will also be those who believe the Argentinian decision is not a good one for orangutans or animals in general as zoos do valuable work on breeding, conservation and education.
A 2014 preliminary report carried out by the World Association Of Zoos And Aquariums found visits encouraged people to think more about conservation and the value of biodiversity – as well as providing many visitors with their only chance to see many species.
“Good zoos know it’s no longer acceptable just to say, ‘Here are some animals… come along and wonder at them.’
“At the same time they’re raising funds for captive breeding programmes for endangered species and to protect them in the wild too,” he said.
The important conservation work zoos carry out could be threatened if judges in other countries follow the Argentinian precedent and decide other animals have “nonhuman” rights to freedom such as Sandra.
However we view it, the judgement is a dramatic turnaround as up to now attempts to bring court cases to have captive animals released had been unsuccessful.
It was only this month that an American court rejected claims that Tommy, a chimpanzee who lived in a cage in a trailer sales park in upstate New York, had rights akin to humans.
A group called the Nonhuman Rights Project had brought a case arguing that Tommy was a “person” who had a right to freedom.
The judge disagreed, saying: “Unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions.”
The owner of Tommy dismissed the case as “ridiculous”.
In 2011 a lawsuit was brought in America by the group PEtA (People For the Ethical treatment Of Animals) against SeaWorld to free five wild-captured orca whales.
The group claimed the whales were “slaves” and that their captivity was in violation of the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United states.
Their case was dismissed too by the court.
Now things could be changing – at least in relation to man’s closest relatives in the animal kingdom.
“From the biological view, between two human beings there can be a difference of 0.5 per cent in the DNA. Between a man and a chimpanzee this difference is only 1.25 per cent,” the project’s mission statement says.
The project promulgated a world declaration on great primates which proposed a “right to life, freedom and prohibition of torture”.
In 2008 the Spanish parliament passed a resolution saying the great apes should have a right to life and freedom.
Now for the first time a court has decided a great ape has rights as a “nonhuman person”.
It is appropriate that the breakthrough case involves an orangutan as the name comes from the Malay and Indonesian words for “forest” and “person”.
The release of Sandra is not the only advance that animal rights campaigners have been celebrating.
Mexico recently became the latest country in south America to ban animals in circuses and only a day later Holland followed suit, making 30 countries that have imposed such a ban.
“The world is changing and we are seeing progressive legislation to end the use of wild animals in circuses sweeping the world. Surely it is time for countries like Britain and United States to catch up and do the same,” declared Jan Creamer, president of the Animal Defenders International.
If it is held that animals or at least certain animals have the same or similar rights as humans it could not only threaten zoos and circuses but also sports in which animals participate.
“The consequences of acknowledging and respecting the rights of other sentient beings has enormous repercussions for zoos, circuses, vivisectionists and of course animal farms,” says Andrew Tyler of Animal Aid.
This week’s case is only one small step for an orangutan – it could yet prove to have brought about one giant leap for the animal kingdom.