Blog: Should our great ape cousins be considered people too?


Should our great ape cousins be considered people too?

By: Sarah Jacobson


Recently, a court ruling about an orangutan in Argentina was a favorite story for animal lovers globally. Being affiliated with animal causes myself, the story repeatedly popped up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds with excited comments about this historic step forward for the animals we all love. These comments frustrated me because I believe there is a lot more to this ruling and its implications for captive animals that is not mentioned in these news articles.

Sandra –

The news story was about Sandra, an orangutan who was granted some basic legal rights by a court in Argentina. These rights include her right to life, freedom, and no physical or psychological harm. Sandra has been living in captivity for most of her 28 years and is currently housed in a zoo in Buenos Aires. Now, after an animal rights group filed a lawsuit on her behalf, she will be released in a sanctuary in Brazil. The court ruling argues that Sandra was being imprisoned in the zoo and should be released because she is a “non-human person,” that she is enough like a human person to be considered a person.

This court decision is historic as the first ruling worldwide of its kind and may lead to many more similar efforts, but is this a good thing? Does Sandra get a better life in the sanctuary she’s moved to rather than the Buenos Aires zoo? Most people would say yes, because we typically believe that a sanctuary is an ideal place for captive animals where they are free and happy. I have a few problems with this idea. One, any group can call themselves a “sanctuary,” but may not be accredited by any governing agency nor require the quality standards that many zoos are held to by national accreditation organizations. Interestingly, in the press that has covered Sandra’s story, there has been little mention of what kind of sanctuary environment she will be moved to, only that it may be a semi-wild facility where she can interact with orangutans1,2.

Another problem is that even if the conditions at the sanctuary may seem better for a wild orangutan, I wonder if Sandra will necessarily be happier there. Growing up in a zoo environment surrounded by humans could make a move to a different environment rather traumatic for many animals. Field studies of orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra show that orangutans spend most of their time alone, and tend to group together mostly during foraging 3. Will it be difficult for her to adapt to living with other unrelated individuals? Will she have access to the same level of nutrition and health care as she did at the Buenos Aires zoo? These are some of the important factors to consider when thinking about her future life and the life of any animals being moved to a different facility. Dr. Plotnik recently spoke about some of these considerations pertaining to elephants being moved from a zoo in Washington on a radio show here:

Tommy -

Tommy –

The Sandra case is similar to lawsuits filed in New York by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to grant four captive chimpanzees “bodily liberty.” Two of the chimps are privately owned pets named Tommy and Kiko who live alone in small spaces. The welfare of these pet chimps is of the utmost concern and they deserve much better living conditions. However, I believe the attempt to recognize them as legal persons may be too extreme, and may do more harm than good in terms of improving their overall welfare. The more abstract concept of animal rights may alienate supporters and divert resources from efforts for animal welfare. Also, as Pepperdine law professor Richard Cupp discussed in a debate with Steven Wise of NhRP, action comes from human responsibility. The reality of the world we live in is that humans will always be responsible for animal welfare so the law should focus on their actions 4. The NhRP has spent over 30,000 hours preparing their cases for these four chimps and all have been rejected from the courts multiple times 5. I think about how that time and effort could have contributed to more realistic change in welfare law for chimps across the United States. One significant welfare change that did not focus on legal rights was implemented during the 5 years in which the NhRP was preparing their cases. The National Institutes of Health has decided to phase out all its support for invasive studies on chimps and retire many of those research chimps to a sanctuary in Louisiana 6. Perhaps a stronger effort to change laws about private ownership of chimpanzees could have improved the conditions for Tommy and Kiko where the personhood case has failed.

The effect of animal rights laws of this type on the future of zoos is especially concerning. I believe that zoos should provide animals with the best care possible and provide habitat that is the closest to an animal’s natural environment. Chimpanzees should have space to move horizontally and vertically, live in social groups larger than two individuals, and have the opportunity to escape human view. This can all be provided in a zoo environment where the public is simultaneously being educated about chimps. I have worked in two different zoos and seen first-hand how children can be inspired by seeing an animal up close. I was one of those children once as well. I believe, in the reality of our world in 2015, that a major way to preserve the animal populations left in the wild is to inspire conservation efforts using captive animals as ambassadors to the general public. Zoos play an important role in this education about conservation issues, and contribute substantially to our knowledge of their animals’ cognition and behavior. Although private sanctuaries may provide satisfactorily for an animal’s welfare, the purpose for keeping an animal in captivity – to educate the public and raise awareness for or to directly impact conservation – may be lost in such places.

Kwan at Lincoln Park Zoo using a touch screen computer -​

Kwan at Lincoln Park Zoo using a touch screen computer –​

I think these are very important issues to consider when thinking more deeply about the implications of the fight for legal rights for animals. At first glance, Sandra gaining legal rights seems like a great step forward in recognizing the importance of humane treatment for captive animals, but it does not address other issues about their long-term futures. Animals should be treated with respect in captivity and in the wild, but the fight for legal rights may not be the way to do it. I think that the goal of gaining better welfare for captive animals can occur through better accountability of and laws for the humans responsible. Efforts towards better animal welfare laws will have far better long-term success than the high goals of the NhRP and be more beneficial for conservation. In an ideal world I would never want to see animals in captivity, but with the current state of wild animal populations, there is serious need for public awareness. Those animals already in captivity or born into captivity should have a primary conservation purpose either through education or non-invasive research.

Disclaimer: Please note that the opinions expressed and positions taken in this piece and any other on the TEI blog, as well as in posted comments, are the respective author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or position of Think Elephants International, its other agents or employees. The author of any posted content is solely responsible for the accuracy and proper attribution of the information he or she obtains and cites herein.


3 Galdikas, B. M. F. 1985. Orangutan sociality at Tanjung Putting. Amer. J. Primatol., 9: 101-119.
4 Science Live discussion:

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