In an apparent victory for animal rights activists, an Argentine court has declared that Sandra, a 28-year-old orangutan living in the Buenos Aires zoo, is a non-person but that “it is necessary to recognize that the animal is subject to rights, and should be protected.”
The court’s ruling was made in response to an animal advocacy group filing a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Sandra. The group, the Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights, said that Sandra, who was born in a German zoo and sent to Argentina 20 years ago, should be sent to a sanctuary after a life of incarceration. The attorney representing Sandra, Andrés Gil Dominguez, is excited by the case’s precedent: “From this ruling forward the discussion will be whether captivity in itself damages their rights,” Gil Dominguez told the AP.
The Argentine court’s decision comes weeks after a New York appeals court rejected a similar case for a chimpanzee. The suit, filed in 2013 on behalf of a 26-year-old chimpanzee named Tommy housed in an upstate New York warehouse, asked the court to grant the animal legal personhood. The Nonhuman Rights Project has said that they were not discouraged by the New York court’s ruling, and they will be able to take some solace and inspiration from the triumph of their Argentine counterparts.
But Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, says they need to know more about what this ruling means. “It’s not clear to us what happened,” Wise said in an interview with Fast Company. “We think that something occurred, we just don’t know what.”
Wise’s hesitance stems from years of previous rulings centered on anti-cruelty statutes. “We’ve seen that sort of thing before,” he says. “Is this just rhetoric or does it have legal ramifications?”
Wise’s group was surprised by the media response to the Argentine case because according to a translated version of the court’s ruling (“we used Obama’s Telemundo guy”) there is nothing specific about Sandra the orangutan “at all.”
The court says that it’s decision is based on a dynamic rather than static interpretation of Argentine criminal law and says it is “necessary to recognize the animal [presumably Sandra] has a subject of rights.”
He called the multiple erroneous reports “an echo chamber.” He theorizes that these reports said more than they really should have because of confusion over how common law and civil law countries operate their judicial systems.
“When a court says animals have rights, it doesn’t mean very much. There are millions of species of animals. Does a bug have rights? But there’s no specificity. That would cause us to sit up and pay attention.”
Wise says he will continue speaking with other lawyers and try to shake out just what it is the Argentine court’s decision means.
“If it has relevance to any cases of ours in New York, we’ll bring it to the court’s attention immediately,” he says.