Animal protection organizations would not have dreamed for a better Christmas gift than the Argentine court decision: Sandra, the female orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) was recognized as a "non-human person" unlawfully deprived of its freedom. Most media in the world published the news at the time. The big attention is completely understandable, as this was the first case when, after several attempts, an animal received this legal state. According to animal protection NGOs, this was the great breakthrough, after several less successful attempts in other countries, which might result in a more horizontal approach in our relationship to animals in the future. Paul Buompadre, a lawyer for AFADA (Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights) said: “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.” However, this decision raises a number of questions, it causes both ideological and practical concerns. Please read the article, and if you have any opinion, I encourage you to write it below as a comment or as an article to firstname.lastname@example.org, which we will publish on ZOOmoments, if appropriate for publication.
Let us see the case in question – first the actors, then the scenes from the story. Sandra, the female orangutan has been living in Zoo Buenos Aires, Argentina, since 1994. She was born in 14th February 1986 in Rostock Zoo (Germany). Her parents, Turk/Tuan and Sunda were also zoo-born apes, and according to ZIMS, Sandra is a subspecies hybrid. She was sold to Karlsruhe Zoo (Germany) in 1989, and finally, she moved to Buenos Aires (Argentina) from ZOOM Erlebniswelt Gelsenkirchen (Germany). Sandra has had one baby, the male Gembira in 1999, but she lives alone, as her fellows had died previously: Sarah in 1998 (at age 17), Connie in 2001 (at age 22), Timo also in 2001 (at age 22) and Max in 2009 (at age 22). The maximum lifespan of orangutans in captivity is 59 years, according to AnAge, therefore the orangs in Buenos Aires died middle-aged – except Sandra. She was described as a shy individual, who doesn’t seek contact with humans.
Zoo Buenos Aires was opened in 1875, is considered one of the oldest zoos in South America. It is a member of ALPZA (Latin American Zoo and Aquarium Association) and WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums), and it gives home to about 2500 individuals of 350 species. Though I have no personal experience with the zoo, according to numerous reviews in TripAdvisor, it looks outdated, and plenty of its facilities seem too small. Though I haven’t found any documented data on Sandra’s enclosure, photos show that it does not look large and well-furnished enough, although it is clean and Sandra looks healthy. Up to now, the zoo has not reacted officially after the verdict, but an Argentine portal reported that they have already considered giving up the keeping of orangutans. The zoo’s only reply to this was the statement of Adrian Sestelo, chief biologist, to local La Nacion, that orangutans were by nature calm, solitary animals that only come together 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 humanise animal behavior.”
I have found very little about the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights, AFADA, only a website: www.afadaong.org. It is a strange fact that none of the trial parties communicate very much. We know that the association filed the habeas corpus petition on behalf of Sandra in November.
What does habeas corpus mean? In short, to protect individuals from illegal detention. It was an important milestone in the history of law and human rights. We can read a lot about it in relation to the imprisonment of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo. Moreover, animal protection organizations started to use it to free captive apes. In New York, the attempt of the Nonhuman Rights Project failed at the trial of Tommy, the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), that was kept by a private person in bad condition, also at the end of 2014. According to the court: “Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions. In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights – such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus – that have been afforded to human beings.” (You can read it here)
There were several petitions for a writ of habeas corpus in Brazil during the previous years, but without any success. Such was the case with the petition for the female chimpanzee Suíça (meaning Switzerland) living in Salvador Zoo. You can read about it here. According to animal protection groups, Suíça almost won the trial in 2005, but she died before the sentence was imposed. Now the plan is to free 17 chimps besides Sandra, but the writ of habeas corpus was denied in the provinces of Córdoba, Río Negro, Santiago del Estero and Entre Ríos.
Sandra’s case was the first success of the animal rights activists. The judgement can be read here in Spanish. If Zoo Buenos Aires will not appeal against the decision, Sandra will go to an ape sanctuary in Brazil. I haven’t found any specific information about this sanctuary, but it would presumably be a sanctuary of the Proyecto Gran Simio/Great Ape Project (GPS/GAP). You can see them here.
Actually (in January of 2015) Sandra still lives in the Zoo Buenos Aires, and – as I can see – nobody knows the next step…