Court: Orangutan in Florida is a "non-human person"

In the city of Wauchula, Florida, a new resident named Sandra has settled in. She’s 33 years old, single, and described by a neighbor as “very sweet and inquisitive.” She’s German by birth, but is a world traveler, having lived for quite some time in Buenos Aires. But before you get ready to start looking her up on the dating app of your choice, you should know something else about her. She’s an orangutan.

But Sandra is perhaps unique among her tribe because she has a court order declaring that she’s a person. True, she’s a “non-human person,” but a person nonetheless. (Associated Press)

Judge Elena Liberatori’s landmark ruling in 2015 declared that Sandra is legally not an animal, but a non-human person, thus entitled to some legal rights enjoyed by people, and better living conditions.

“With that ruling I wanted to tell society something new, that animals are sentient beings and that the first right they have is our obligation to respect them,” she told The Associated Press.

But without a clear alternative, Sandra remained at the antiquated zoo, which closed in 2016, until leaving for the U.S. in late September. She was in quarantine for a month at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas before arriving in Florida.

There’s one catch to this story. The judge who declared Sandra to be a person, Elena Liberatori, sits on a court in Argentina, so it probably doesn’t carry any weight here in the United States. And even in Buenos Aires, it didn’t help Sandra much. She was stuck in a dilapidated zoo for nearly four years after the ruling before finally being transferred to the promised land of America. (No word is provided as to her immigration status.)

So will Sandra be treated any differently in a legal sense than other such animals… er, “non-human persons?” Probably not. She would need a ruling in an American court to grant her any sort of rights.

That doesn’t sound likely since previous attempts to have other primates declared persons with natural rights have fallen flat. A group called the Nonhuman Rights Project brought a lawsuit in 2013 on behalf of a group of chimpanzees in New York State, requesting a writ of habeas corpus on their behalf and claiming that they deserved to have their rights as people recognized. In 2016, they scored a victory in another court in Argentina on behalf of a different chimp and planned to try to use that as supporting precedent in New York.

But a year later, the New York State Supreme Court dismissed the suit. The court determined that “their cognitive capabilities didn’t mean they could be held legally accountable for their actions.” But on appeal, while the bid to grant a writ of habeas corpus to the chimps failed, one of the judges tiptoed right up to the line of wanting to find a way to declare them people when penning the court’s opinion. So this is clearly a topic that hasn’t gone away.

Should other primates have the same rights as humans? I certainly think that orangutans, gorillas and especially chimps deserve a far better lot in life than they get from us far too often. And while they may not be human, they clearly have consciousness, a sense of self, emotions, the ability to communicate and enough other red flags to make them uncomfortably close to being human.

But they’re still not people. And, as the original judge in New York said, you can’t grant them total rights and freedom unless they can be accountable for their actions under the law. If a chimp were set loose and wound up biting somebody’s face off (yes, it’s happened before), can they be taken to court and held accountable for the attack? Can their lawyer demonstrate that the client understands the nature of the crime and potential implications? Sadly, no.

But as humans, we do have the ability to grant certain reasonable protections to any animals, including these primates. We can ensure their welfare and punish other humans who torture, abuse or neglect them. Sadly, until chimps make a breakthrough in communications, that’s about the best they should hope for.