A Monkey’s Uncle: A Nonhuman Person in an Argentinean Zoo


Craig Klugman

Publish date

Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): Animal Ethics

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

A court in Argentina has ruled that Sandra, an orangutan is a nonhuman person who is deserving of some rights. Animal rights groups suggest that includes a right to privacy. If true, then Sandra is being illegally kept in a zoo where she often covers her head to avoid being gazed upon by zoo visitors.

Orangutans (a Malayan word meaning “person of the forest”) are not monkeys, but rather are an Asian species of the great apes (genus pongo) native to Borneo and Sumatra. They are arboreal creatures and very solitary. Considered among the most intelligent primates, orangutans have been observed using tools for hunting fish; processing fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables; collecting honey; and fishing for termites. They even use leaves as napkins and gloves. In captivity, these apes have been taught to create stone axes as well as to play computer games. Some primatologists even believe that different populations may have different cultures. All variations of the orangutan are endangered with fewer than 61,000 in the wild.

However, it is unclear that a nonhuman person has any rights as the court has not named any, nor has the court supported a writ of habeas corpus for Sandra. The zoo has not decided if it will appeal the ruling.

Sandra is not alone. Four chimps in other parts of the world are the subjects of similar legal cases. Last month, a chimp named Tommy was denied an appeal by a New York appellate court. Tommy was not granted legal personhood and remains a pet.

Some scholars such as Descartes argue that of course these primates are not humans and thus do not have rights and responsibilities reserved for homo sapiens sapiens. Other scholars such as Jeremy Bentham, Peter Singer and Tom Regan would seem to support such a move. Bentham felt that nonhumans should have some moral consideration based on their ability to feel pleasure and pain. Singer famously argued that believing other animals are less deserving of moral consideration than all human beings is speciest. He argued that there is no single factor that (a) all humans share that some other animals do not and (b) that there is no factor unique to humans that is shared by all humans. Regan has written that nonhuman animals have moral rights that humans should respect.

Certainly a legal declaration of some sort of personhood would force major changes for contemporary societies. “Nonhuman persons” would most likely not be kept in zoos. And what about other intelligent animals such as dolphins, chimps, pigs, parrots and whales? Would we have responsibilities to preserve intelligent animals from extinction and to provide them with appropriate reservations on which to live? Vegetarianism might become necessary as well with eating meat potentially infringing the liberty of other animals (many have already made this choice for philosophical reasons).

Sandra, Tommy, and other cases are interesting in that they could require law to adopt a different philosophical framework. From an ethical standpoint, the debate on the moral status of nonhuman beings has been argued for millennia. But a legal declaration could force real change in how society conceives of and relates to other creatures on the planet. This might push more of us toward Singer and Regan, leaving Descartes behind.

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