Last month, Sandra the orangutan was transferred from an Argentinian zoo to a rescue centre for Great Apes in Florida. In a landmark ruling by an Argentinian Court in 2014, Sandra, who was previously held at a zoo in Buenos Aires, was found to have an entitlement to the right to liberty, a basic human right in accordance with the constitution of Argentina.

Sandra was born in a zoo in Germany and was sold to Buenos Aires in 1995. She spent much of her life in a solitary enclosure, trying to avoid the public. Her daughter, born in 1999 was removed from her and sold to a Chinese zoo.

The 2014 case, centred on whether Sandra was a “person” or a “thing”, was brought by Argentina’s Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA) against the Government of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires and the City Zoological Garden of Buenos Aires. On or around November 2013, AFADA filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus, a legal mechanism which can be used to challenge the lawfulness of a person’s detention, submitting that Sandra was “a person” philosophically, rather than biologically and that she was being deprived of her liberty as a “non-human person” with “probable cognitive capacity”. It was argued that her mental and physical heath had seriously deteriorated as a result of the deprivation of liberty.

The Federal Chamber of Criminal Cassation in Argentina decided in favour of AFADA on appeal, stating that “from a dynamic and non-static legal interpretation, it is necessary to recognize [Sandra] an orangutan as a subject of rights, as non-human subjects (animals) are holders of rights, so it imposes her protection.” Judge Liberatori stated that “animals are sentient beings and that the first right they have is our obligation to respect them.” The AFADA has suggested that the ruling will set a precedent for the advancement of “human rights” for animals, particularly apes, which are now arguably considered “persons” in Argentinian law.

This is unlikely at present. Several claims have been filed on similar terms in the United States of America without success. In 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) brought a claim against SeaWorld, submitting that five orca whales were being kept In exceptionally poor conditions. The matter was dismissed by a Court in San Diego. In or around December 2014, a court in New York rejected a claim that a privately owned chimpanzee was entitled to liberty on the basis that it constitutes “property” and could not be afforded rights under habeas corpus.

In 2015, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge, Barbara Jaffe, held in favour of the animal rights group, Nonhuman Rights Project, (NhRP), stating that two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, has been unlawfully imprisoned at Stony Brook University where they were being used for medical experiments. Although NhRP has filed a writ of habeas corpus, the judge amended the final order to remove the words “writ of habeas corpus” as she did not intend to afford Hercules and Leo “personhood”.

The UK Position

The UK government views animals as sentient beings. The cases outlined above specifically attempt to apply the laws of human rights to animals. In domestic law, we have specific legislation protecting animal rights as distinct from human rights. The Act to Prevent to Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle 1822, was the first act in the world protecting animal rights. Currently, animals are protected under the Animal Welfare Act 2007 in England and Wales.

However, there is currently no legal basis in England and Wales for an an animal to be afforded the same rights as a human. It remains to be seen whether Sandra’s case will have any implications in UK law.

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