In a move that makes landing on the moon look like child’s play, a court in Argentina has extended the right of habeas corpus to an orangutan jailed in a Buenos Aires zoo.
A lawyer in Argentina filed a writ of habeas corpus, used as a legal means to review cases of unfair imprisonment, on behalf of Sandra, a 28-year-old orangutan said to be so shy she hides in a corner when visitors to the zoo arrive to stare at her through the glass.
Andrés Gil Dominguez, the attorney who represented Sandra, told the AP the case “sets an important precedent” since no court anywhere has ever admitted that sentient beings whose DNA differs from ours by only a few percentage points is anything other than the property of its human masters.
“From this ruling forward,” Dominguez told the AP, “the discussion will be whether captivity in itself damages their rights.”
Just as the idea of rights is a concept invented by humans to protect us from other humans, it is necessary for us to extend the idea of rights to animals in order to protect them from human exploitation.
In Sandra’s case, she needs an acknowledgement of those rights to shield her from being reduced to a prisoner of our amusement.
Sandra has been deemed a “non-human person” with certain basic rights, one of which is bodily liberty. Although the one-page ruling from the Argentine court was somewhat vague, it looks as though Sandra must now be moved to a sanctuary with an environment more suited to her nature.
This outcome in Argentina stands in stark contrast to a few cases here in the United States where the Non-Human Rights Project (NHRP) has been attempting to persuade the courts to grant writs of habeas corpus to four chimpanzees held in deplorable conditions in the state of New York.
These cases involve: Hercules and Leo, two young male chimps being held at New Iberia Research Center suffering from intense confinement as well as the abuse of research experiments; Kiko, a 26-year-old chimp retired from life in the entertainment industry languishing on private property alone in a cage in Niagara Falls; and Tommy, another 26-year-old chimp living alone in a cage in a trailer park.
The judges in these cases denied the writs of habeas corpus on the grounds that they had no precedent, and in Tommy’s case the judges ruled that “no entity may be a ‘person’ with the capacity for even a single legal right unless that entity can bear duties and responsibilities,” according to the NHRP.
The group is appealing Tommy’s case. Denying rights on the grounds that an individual must be able to bear duties would mean that children and the mentally ill, among others, are less deserving of the minimum protections against undue confinement and slavery.
We can’t seem to come up with a clear and rational argument defending the exploitation of animals, while not also defending the abuse of certain humans. All we can think to say is that animals are different from us, and easily exploited, so it’s OK for us use them for any benefit to ourselves.
At one point we used this argument to defend human slavery, as NHRP founder Steven Wise has argued.
“Not long ago, people generally agreed that human slaves could not be legal persons, but were simply the property of their owners,” Wise said in a press release. “We will assert, based on clear scientific evidence, that it’s time to take the next step and recognize that these nonhuman animals cannot continue to be exploited as the property of their human ‘owners.’”
So if we start granting animals the right not to be jailed in solitary confinement, or abused or even killed for our pleasure, does this mean animals still get to go around acting like animals, even killing each other and we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard?
Yep. That’s right. Just like toddlers are allowed to go around pooping in their pants, but it’s a sign of mental weakness for us to do it.
Expanding our realm of compassion could only be beneficial for us as a species. This shift will be bigger and more challenging than landing on the moon. Einstein, a vegetarian, reminded us that “the measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
Animals remain our slaves simply because we are not yet intelligent enough to understand them, nor to comprehend the benefit we will incur when we stop using our ability to dominate as an excuse to do it.