Orangutan is the Malay word for “forest man,” and they have proven to share the emotional intelligence of people. In a landmark case, the emotional well-being of a captive orangutan, Sandra, was finally recognized! Sandra, who is currently at the Buenos Aires Zoo, is now legally recognized as a “non-human person,” making it unlawful to deprive her of freedom any longer.

Animal rights protestors filed the habeas corpus petition last November to free Sandra, the 29-year-old Orangutan, from her confinement at the Argentinian Zoo. The Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights (Afada), fought for Sandra and argued that the ape, who has sufficient cognitive functions, should not be treated as only an object. They also said that while Sandra was not identical to humans biologically, she is like humans emotionally. Living in a semi-wild habitat would, thus be the best thing for the orangutan. Unfortunately, many animals are not as lucky as Sandra and continue to be viewed as merely objects. Even in the U.S., the most intelligent and emotional of species are legally seen as only objects.

Though Sandra was granted only the most basic of human rights, this case may pave the way for other animals. Paul Buompadre, lawyer for Afada, stated that “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.”

Sandra was said to regularly avoid the public when she was in her enclosure, and was visibly unhappy in her current living situation.

Argentina is not the first country to grant non-human personhood to an animals. In 2013, India passed a law that recognizes dolphins as non-human persons, whose right to life and liberty must be respected. This law effectively banned keeping dolphins in captivity and aided in shutting down several marine parks. Efforts to recognize dolphins as non-human persons are also in place in Romania.

Though there has been a great deal of work in the quest for granting personhood to some animals in the U.S., specifically thanks to the Nonhuman Rights Project, there has been very little success. The city of Malibu did proclaim that dolphins and whales have the right to their own freedom and lives. Unfortunately, however, earlier this month, Tommy the chimpanzee was denied a writ of habeas corpus in the New York courts stated “chimpanzees have no human rights.”

With current research finding more and more similarities between people and non-human animals, it is time for our laws to catch up. New York courts claimed that one of the reasons rights were not granted to Tommy the chimp is because habeas corpus had never been used in a non-human case before. Apes and many other species of animal share many of the same emotional abilities as people and are deserving of the simple right not to suffer.

If there is no appeal against the court’s decision from the Buenos Aires zoo, Sandra will be transferred to a sanctuary for primates in Brazil. There she can live with partial liberty and away from the crowds that she often tried to avoid.  To learn more about granting animals personhood and the effort to provide rights to our intelligent counterparts, visit the Nonhuman Rights Project’s website.

Image source: Derek Sheerin/Flickr