A 33-year-old captive-born orangutan is settling into her new home at the Center for Great Apes sanctuary in central Florida after being granted non-human personhood nearly five years ago.
Sandra is a hybrid mix of Bornean and Sumatran orangutans born on Valentine’s Day in 1986 in Germany. She spent 25 years at the now-defunct Buenos Aires Zoo before an Argentinian judge ruled that Sandra is a non-human person and is granted some of the same rights as people, including better living conditions, making it illegal to keep her in a zoo. She joined more than 50 other rescued orangutans and chimpanzees earlier this month in her new home, reports the Associated Press.
“Sandra is very sweet and inquisitive. She was shy when she first arrived, but once she saw the swings, toys, and grassy areas in her new home, she went out to explore," said founder and director of the center Patti Ragan in a statement emailed to IFLScience.
However, the sanctuary notes that Sandra lost her status of legal personhood upon arriving in the US, since the ruling was made in Argentina.
The 2014 ruling may set an international precedent for extending personhood to non-human animals, awarding them similar rights enjoyed by a human. Advocacy groups have been pushing to change the common law status of intellectual animals – such as great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales – “from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘legal persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights,” according to the US-based nonprofit organization Nonhuman Rights Project.
Rights secured under the designation of nonhuman personhood means that certain animals are not something that can be owned, but rather as an individual with rights and interests that the law must respect and protect. There is debate as to what exactly those rights are but generally include the right not to be killed or assaulted, and the right to gain access to health care or assistance in the case of an accident, according to Animal Ethics. By and large, animals would no longer be used as “resources”, and decisions would be required to take their interests and wellbeing into consideration.
Other intelligent animals have joined a list compiled by advocates seeking personhood. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation argues that cetaceans should similarly have individual rights that grant them a safe life free from human harm in a clean, noise-free environment given their complex social structures and unique personalities that contribute to cultures that “deserve protecting.”
“The first step on the legal journey will be the recognition of dolphins and whales as non-human persons,” writes the organization. “From there we can begin to look at what this will mean for having specific rights for whales and dolphins recognized in law.”
Earlier this year, dozens of activists gathered at the Bronx Zoo to petition the release of Happy the elephant, who was dubbed the loneliest elephant in the world. Last month. Lawyers argued in a New York courtroom that the animal is being held “illegally” due to her personhood, reported The Guardian at the time. Happy is the only elephant in the US being held alone in captivity, which goes against recommendations recently passed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) that suggests elephants be kept in groups of three or more, according to a Change.org petition.
Under US law, corporate personhood is protected under the 14th Amendment, which extends essential rights to corporations. Environmentalists argue that these rights be extended to included natural landscapes under environmental personhood.