This story is over 5 years old.


Did Argentina Just Open the Door to Personhood for Apes?

A court in Argentina has ruled that non-human persons can't be kept in cages. Will America follow suit?
December 29, 2014, 11:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Tim Snell

A few days before Christmas, a court in Argentina ruled that non-human persons can't be kept in cages. Sandra, a 28-year-old orangutan born in a zoo, will now likely be transferred to a sanctuary, unless the Buenos Aires zoo appeals the decision. The Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights filed a writ for habeas corpus on the ape's behalf, and this is the first time the tactic has worked, offering a new strategy for activists to follow in the years to come.

It's not surprising that the landmark case emerged in Latin America. After all, Costa Rica became the first Western country to ban public zoos last year. "There's more momentum there than in any other part of the world," says Merritt Clifton, a journalist who covered animal issues for 45 years. Of course, he and many others are wondering if the United States might be next.

After the American non-profit Association of Zoos & Aquariums was founded in 1924, parks with animals were generally divided into two categories: accredited institutions and roadside attractions. In 1975, the moral philosopher Peter Singer set the monkey-rights ball in motion. He asked, in his first book, Animal Liberation, "If we think that all human beings, irrespective of age or mental capacity, have some basic rights, how can we deny the great apes, who surpass some humans in their capacities, also have these rights?"

At the time Singer was writing, Latin Americans were already forming groups dedicated to animal rights. "Many of the nations involved [in fighting zoos today] were run by military dictatorships up until the 90s," Clifton told me. "That means there were very few channels for activism for young people to join a cause without the risk of disappearing. Animal advocacy was conducted with more or less impunity."

Those groups focused almost exclusively on closing zoos and circuses even while their counterparts around the world spent energy protesting biomedical research and promoting veganism. But according to Clifton, the Andean diet in Peru doesn't rely on a ton of meat as is, and with the exception of Brazil, there isn't all that much biomedical research conducted on animals in the region. So almost by default, organizations active in the region like Animal Defenders International were compelled to focus on zoos, which have salience with the local population.

That isn't to say US organizations aren't trying to do the same. In the past, they've burned through a ton of cash trying to sue circuses under the Endangered Species Act. In 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) unsuccessfully sued SeaWorld, claiming that keeping orcas in a tank violated their 13th Amendment rights.

More recently, a group called the Nonhuman Rights Project has been fighting for the release of a 26-year-old chimp named Tommy, who's been locked up for decades in New York. If it works—the latest court ruling did not go their way—that means activists have finally found an effective tactic for liberating critters. (The Association of Zoos & Aquariums declined through a spokesperson to comment on the ethics of keeping animals in captivity, or about the decision in Argentina.)

But Jared Goodman, the director of animal law at PETA, is hopeful. "That group that filed the New York lawsuit spent many, many years figuring out what would be the most favorable jurisdiction," he told me. "And while the courts here are certainly not gonna rely on a foreign nation's decision, it's a great precedent."

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.