Monday, December 22, 2014

Orangutan called a "Non-Human Person," one that can be freed Part I**updated

A case in Argentina is making headline news around the world.** An orangutan (an ape, just like humans are apes) has been ruled a "non-human person" that deserves corresponding, basic rights. The Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights successfully argued that Sandra, an orangutan born in captivity and currently housed at the Buenos Aires Zoo in Argentina, deserved freedom from the confinement she currently experiences.

I think this is an interesting story for a couple of reasons. For starters, the court did NOT rule that Sandra deserved the same rights as a human. The wording specifically states that she is a "non-human person." Now, what does that mean? Great question. It'll be interesting to see how this story develops. Humans, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, gibbons, and siamangs are all apes. Apes are characterized by larger brains than other primates and lack of a tail. We're more closely related to other apes than we are to lemurs or monkeys, but we're certainly a different species than our close relatives. We last shared a common ancestor with orangutans about 16 million years ago, meaning that orangutans and humans have been on separate evolutionary paths for this amount of time. That's a decent amount of time, and obviously a lot of differences have occurred since then. The phylogenetic tree, which represents the relationship between different species, shown below may help you visualize the relationship between different apes. Humans and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor roughly 6-7 million years ago. We last shared a common ancestor with gorillas around 9 million years ago.

Tree showing the amount of time passed since humans split off from different apes. Humans are more closely related to chimpanzees than to gorillas. For more on how to understand phylogenetic trees, click here.

I do not think non-human apes should be awarded the same status as humans. However, I think awarding apes some rights may be a good idea but may also have unintended consequences. I am an advocate for animal rights in general, believing that it is our responsibility as intelligent humans to make sure that no animal is treated cruelly. Many primates live in complex social groups, they certainly display different emotions, and some even are capable of simple language. Regardless, non-human apes are not the same as humans. Before we brashly declare that they deserve to be considered the same as humans, we need to think about the potential consequences of those actions.

Primates are often used in biomedical research. Many believe primates should not be used this way (check out this link), but there are still those who believe we need to continue (read what proponents for primates in biomedical research have to say). The argument often used to continue primate biomedical research is that the number of primates used in research is very small and the number of humans helped is often very large. Whatever side of the line you stand on, declaring primates or just apes separate rights from humans will likely have a cascading effect on primates used in medicine.

I recommend listening to both sides of the debate on using primates for biomedical research before jumping to any conclusions. I'm a firm believer that there's no such thing as too much research so do your own on this issue! That said, I like that this orangutan was pointedly not declared a human. The zoo has time to appeal the court's ruling, which I would guess they will do. It'll be interesting to see how this case of non-human personhood plays out.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about apes in zoos and an important point an official of the Buenos Aires Zoo makes.

**The Nonhuman Rights Project obtained and translated the original court ruling and determined that the media got much of it wrong concerning this case. Nowhere did the court explicitly state that this orangutan nor any animal is entitled to rights and habeas corpus was not granted. Read more here.

Additional reading/links:

Non-human primates: the appropriate subjects of biomedical research?

 Primate tree

How human are chimps?

Should apes have rights?

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