Bioethics Blogs

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

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.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.