Meet Sandra, the Orangutan with the Same Legal Rights as Humans

Unlike other animals, Sandra the Orangutan can no longer be bought and sold like an object---she is technically a "non-human person."

04.10.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo on Pacific Standard
Photo on Pacific Standard

In most countries, an animal is legally an ‘object’: something that people can own, buy or sell without repercussion.

Until 2015, the same was true for Sandra, a 33-year-old mixed Bornean and Sumatran orangutan. She spent the best part of 24 years living in a concrete “cell”—no bigger than a basketball court—in a Buenos Aires zoo.

But, her fortunes have turned around. After a complex legal battle in Argentina—one that has effectively set a new precedent for apes to be legally considered ‘people’, rather than property—Sandra is en-route to Florida’s Center for Great Apes to live out the rest of her days.

She’ll soon be roaming around an open-space sanctuary that acts as a home for chimpanzees and orangutans freed from laboratories, zoos and private collections, including Bubbles, the chimp formerly owned by Michael Jackson.

And she’ll do it all with a new title: as a ‘non-human person.’


Sandra and the legal challenge

While not much is known about Sandra’s infancy, it’s understood that she was born in an East German zoo and raised in solitude after her mother rejected her.

Sandra was then sold to Buenos Aires in 1995, where she mostly lived in a solitary enclosure and tried to avoid the public. Sandra gave birth to a daughter in 1999, but rejected the baby, too—which was then sold to an animal park in China.

In 2014, after almost two decades with the zoo, animal rights and conservation-focused legal team AFADA picked up her case. They argued that being “locked up in a concrete box” was intolerable, and that a legal challenge was needed to ensure she was not considered a “thing” or “object.”

People that looked after Sandra affirmed that she had chronic depression, preferring to sit outside in the rain and snow than mate with a male orangutan.



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‼️EXCITING NEWS Welcome Sandra! After several years of planning, we are happy to welcome Sandra to sanctuary care! She is required to complete a CDC quarantine period at the Sedgewick County Zoo before she arrives at the center, hopefully in four to six weeks. She has arrived at the zoo and is doing well. Our staff and volunteers are eagerly looking forward to meeting Sandra who is the first orangutan to receive legal “personhood” status in Argentina. We will continue to keep you updated! ? from AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko #sandra #sandraorangutan #orangutan #centerforgreatapes #ape #primate #endangered #sanctuary #animal #nature #wildlife #Florida #notpets #animallover

A post shared by Center for Great Apes (@centerforgreatapes) on


Liberatori the Liberator

In 2015, Sandra found her perfect champion: Argentinian judge Elena Amanda Liberatori.

In a landmark ruling, presiding over the case brought by AFADA, Liberatori found that the orangutan is a “non-human person.” She ordered the city of Buenos Aires to provide everything necessary to “preserve her cognitive abilities.”

Crucially, this ruling made Sandra an animal with rights—rather than an object that could be owned, bought and sold.

“I studied law in order to defend innocents, and there is nothing more innocent than an animal,” Liberatori explained to El Pais. During recent medical tests ahead of the move to the US, the judge was an unwavering presence at Sandra’s side while she was asleep.

However, the “non-human person” ruling was not without controversy. The Buenos Aires Attorney General wrote in a stinging editorial that the developments “destroyed Darwin’s theory of evolution” by granting rights to animals that were not granted to human embryos—thereby establishing a point at which humans are inferior.

This was met by an even stronger rebuttal from the scientific community, with 253 biology professionals jointly rejecting the claims in an article titled, “Darwin is still alive, as are poor interpretations of the theory of evolution.”

Liberatori told TIME she was happy about Sandra’s move to the US, but “a bit nervous” about everything going well.

“After she arrives in the sanctuary I will visit her. It is going to be a very happy moment for me.”

For its part, the Florida Center for Great Apes said everything was ready for Sandra’s move. “We’re eager to meet her, she’s a lovely orangutan,” Patti Ragan, the Center’s founder, told the BBC.

“We don’t want any distractions. We just want her to have peace when she gets here”.

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