Almost three years ago, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), gathered scientists and philosophers in Vancouver, Canada, to argue that whales and dolphins should be afforded the same ethical considerations as human beings. The establishment of a “Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans” would mean that these highly intelligent animals are to be recognized as “nonhuman persons.” In July 2013, the Indian government officially recognized the personhood of dolphins, joining Chile, Costa Rica and Hungary in banning the capture and importation of dolphins for commercial entertainment.
Identifying animals like whales and dolphins as nonhuman persons is based on their observed intelligence and complex brains, along with exhibiting social characteristics that we see as similar to our own. We are uncomfortable killing, enslaving and abusing animals that have intricate societies which include aspects that resemble things like verbal communication, compassion and advanced cooperation. Seeing bits of ourselves in other beings facilitates our empathy for them.
In a similar landmark ruling, a court in Argentina has recognized a great ape as a “nonhuman person” after local animal rights activists filed a habeas corpus petition on behalf of a 29-year-old Sumatran orangutan living at the Buenos Aires Zoo. The court agreed with the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights (Afada), who were suing the zoo, that the orangutan — named Sandra — should not be treated as a thing, but rather a person.
This opens the way not only for other Great Apes, but also for other sentient beings which are unfairly and arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in zoos, circuses, water parks and scientific laboratories.
—Afada lawyer Paul Buompadre (via La Nación)
Sandra will be transferred from the zoo to a sanctuary, but what does this ruling mean for the countless other great apes held in captivity around the world?
For one, while similar cases have failed, this one sets an important, successfully-argued precedent. There are several lawsuits in the U.S. being brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project regarding the personhood of chimpanzees. Sandra’s case offers hope that such cases, as well as those involving cetaceans, will see more positive outcomes for the animal beneficiaries.
While some may confuse the recognition of “human rights” for animals with fanatical activism or anthropomorphism, it’s really all about compassion, kindness and fairness. There is an extremely strong argument against the capture, slaughter, imprisonment and enslavement of highly intelligent nonhumans and resistance to recognition of their rights is most likely rooted in greed and a reactionary mindset.