by Rosa Maria Cajiga
Sandra the orangutan recently celebrated her 37th birthday! She was born on Valentine’s Day in 1986 at the Rostock Zoologischer Garten, a zoo in Germany. Years later, she was sent to a zoo in Argentina, where she gave birth to a boy named Gembira in 1999. They remained together until 2001, when Gembira was sent to a zoo in China. After Gembira’s departure, Sandra lived alone. Visitors at the zoo started noticing signs of mental distress in her appearance and asked for action to be taken. Several attempts were made to help her.
However, it wasn’t until 2014 that the animal welfare group Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA), presented a case to a Buenos Aires Court to claim “personhood” rights for Sandra on the basis that she had been deprived illegitimately and arbitrarily of her freedom by the authorities of the zoo. They also emphasized that her physical and mental health was at that moment severely deteriorated, with imminent risk of death. Therefore, she needed more suitable conditions for living.
After a years-long legal battle, in 2015 the Argentinian Judge Elena Liberatoris declared that under the law Sandra is not an animal but a non-human person and, therefore, she is entitled to some legal rights and more suitable living conditions. Judge Liberatoris decided that Sandra must be transferred to a sanctuary and not be kept in a zoo. After this ruling, Sandra became the first orangutan in the world to receive legal “non-human personhood” status; this landmark ruling gave the orangutan basic rights, including life, freedom, and a promise of “no harm” both physically and psychologically.
Unfortunately, there is only one accredited sanctuary for orangutans in the Americas, the Center for Great Apes. The Center was asked to take Sandra in, and after years of processing international and federal permits, Sandra arrived in November of 2019 at her new home in Florida. Sandra is much loved there, especially for her sweet and curious personality. She has acclimated quite nicely and has even developed a close friendship with another orangutan named Jethro.
This case is now used as a precedent to claim legal rights for others. Sandra’s life changed unexpectedly for the better; without knowing it, she may have also changed the lives of many animals.
“Orangutan Sandra Granted Personhood Settles into New Florida Home,” The Guardian, Nov. 7 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/07/sandra-orangutan-florida-argentina-buenos-aires
Sandra, Center for Great Apes, https://centerforgreatapes.org/orangutan/sandra/