In a landmark ruling in favor of the rights of ‘non-human persons,’ a court in Buenos Aires just recognized Sandra – a 29-year old Sumatran orangutan – to be sufficiently sentient as to deserve her freedom from zoo captivity. She is the first non-human primate to be recognized as such. The ruling came in response to a writ of habeas corpus filed by the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA).

Paul Buompadre, a lawyer for AFADA, was quoted by La Nacion newspaper as saying, “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 have been brought before the courts in the U.S. – most recently on behalf of dolphins and chimpanzees. However, they have not yet been fortunate enough to be heard by a judge sentient enough to recognize the needs and rights of animals to live in accordance with their nature – rather than for the profit, research and entertainment of humans.

AFADA is challenging the entire zoo system in Argentina not only for imprisoning animals but for abusing them, as well. Representing the opposing viewpoint is Adrian Sestelo, the head of biology for the zoo in Buenos Aires where Sandra has been on display for the last 20 years. “When you don’t know the biology of a species,” he told La Nacion, “to unjustifiably claim it suffers abuse, is stressed or depressed, is to make one of man’s most common mistakes, which is to humanize animal behavior."

If this argument sounds eerily familiar, it’s because it has been used historically to justify brutally depriving and exploiting groups of humans whose skin color, life ways, belief system, gender or gender orientation is different from those of the dominant group. Yet the more science progresses, the more researchers are becoming aware of how many of the feelings and capacities we once believed were exclusively human are actually shared by various non-human beings. In fact, even plants are beginning to be recognized by science as sentient beings [see Weekender article 12/19/14]

Sandra has lived her entire life in captivity. She was born in Germany then sent to the zoo in Buenos Aires when she was nine – an age when wild orangs still live with their mothers. Because she has no experience living in the wild, Sandra will be transported in early January to a sanctuary where she will spend the rest of her life in relative freedom and privacy – providing the zoo does not file an appeal within 10 days of the ruling.