Animal Rights are Human Rights: When Animals are People

Animal Rights are Human Rights: When Animals are People

In another major victory for animal rights, a 29-year-old Argentinian zoo orangutan named Sandra recently made headlines when a judge granted her non-human personhood status, giving her the freedom to be transferred from the zoo to a sanctuary.

Animal rights activists and their lawyers said Sandra was suffering in the zoo. She is an intelligent being that they argued should not be treated as an object. The campaigners filed a habeas corpus petition on Sandra’s behalf. The document is most commonly filed when a (human) person is believed to be imprisoned or detained unjustly.

“The court agreed Sandra, born into captivity in Germany before being transferred to Argentina two decades ago, deserved the basic rights of a ‘non-human person,’” reports Reuters.

“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,” the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights lawyer Paul Buompadre said in the daily La Nacion.

While U.S. courts have dismissed several recent cases for non-human personhood, there have been victories in countries like India, which recognize dolphins as non-human persons. And in the Bay Area, legislators recently acknowledged that whales and dolphins have the right to free passage and to be free from captivity. The 2012 documentary “Blackfish” helped shed light on the plights of marine mammals in captivity at parks like SeaWorld. The theme park is still battling lost earnings and the loss of major marketing partnerships in the wake of the film.

Moving a 29-year-old orangutan (which means “forest man” in the Malay and Indonesian languages, by the way) out of a zoo might not seem like that big of a deal, but it matters. A lot. And not just to Sandra, or the animal rights activists who fought for her freedom. It matters to us and to our future.

A vegan planet may not be in our immediate future, but a more humane one certainly can be, and needs to be. How can we be expected to take the best care of ourselves and each other if we can’t even grant a little bit of extra leg room to a chicken, or stop hacking the tusks out of elephant faces, or let an aging and aware orangutan spend her golden years in a tranquil sanctuary?

We can’t.

We can’t raise more compassionate children, or take better care of our planet if we aren’t able to muster the simple human decency to recognize that animals aren’t here for our amusement. That’s an antiquated misperception that we need to set free just like the zoo let Sandra go.

We don’t have dominion over our fellow earthlings; we have a responsibility to stand up for them when they cannot do it for themselves. We are beholden to their majesty, their beauty and the awe they inspire in us all. When modern society learns how to appreciate that without trying to control it, we’ll all be a lot more free: orangutans, humans and all.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Related on EcoSalon

The Case for Animal Personhood: Will ‘Nonhuman’ Persons Make Us Better Humans?

In Defense of Non-Human Humanity

Dolphins in India are Recognized as “Non-Human Persons,” Still More Hoops to Jump Through Though

Image: Arian Zwegers

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.