The First Non-Human Person

Near Highlands Hammock State Park, an area of towering oak and spring-fed rivers on Florida’s Atlantic coastal plain, 33-year-old Sandra is settling into her new home.

Born in Germany in 1986, Sandra travelled to Argentina in 1994, spending much of her life there, splitting her time between the great cities of Córdoba and Buenos Aires. In 2019, she moved to the United States, spending some time in Kansas before moving to Florida. Born in captivity, Sandra is a hybrid mix of Bornean and Sumatran orangutans.

In an unprecedented legal move, she was granted fundamental rights to life, freedom, and protection from harm last year. Finally escaping a life spent living alone in zoos, she is now living out her days in a sanctuary surrounded by others just like her except in one respect. Sandra is a world-first: a non-human person.

once we notice our speciesism, we glimpse how far we have yet to go

What defines a person varies across cultures, fuelling legal and philosophical debate for many years. Personhood entitles us to a range of rights, protections and privileges; it also demands responsibilities and makes us answerable to the law. The general practice worldwide is that only ‘natural persons’ have rights, and only human beings are natural persons.

Humans are one of four remaining members of the family of great apes, alongside chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans like Sandra. Sharing well over 90% of our DNA, we are similar too in our capacity to love, care, fear, suffer and more. Why should we not make personhood universal, granting all of our close cousins the privileges we take for granted? By seeking to create a world where we extend our compassion beyond our humanity, we soon come up against our natural speciesism. This discrimination we commit when we treat some beings as more important or worthy of consideration than others based on what species they happen to be is something we must confront.

While the brightest line of species discrimination is between humans and great apes, we need not look far to see where else we draw lines. Consider how we think about companion animals like dogs, cats, rabbits and budgies, compared to how our treatment of cows, pigs, sheep and chickens is ‘just the way things are’. Once we notice our speciesism, we glimpse how far we have yet to go. Consider too cultural differences in treatment worldwide, and then realise there are around 1.2 million known species of animals, with another 8.7 million awaiting discovery.

we can feel our inherent compassion compelling us forward

We may wonder how far we should extend personhood, moving beyond our nearest relatives to include beings such as whales, dolphins, elephants, crows, and others known to have intelligence comparable to humans. When we consider those worthy of protection as the animals most similar to us, speciesism raises its head again. Noticeably, we tend not to include the ones we eat or use for clothing, cosmetics and entertainment. We may wonder too how we can expect even great apes to live up to the demands that come with their new privileges. Yet, we don’t have to look far to see that we already afford fundamental rights to those unable to reciprocate, including minors and people with intellectual disabilities. When we pay attention, we can feel our inherent compassion compelling us forward.

Organisations and individuals across the world are already working to accelerate this grand project. The Great Ape Project was founded in 1993, proposing the right to life, freedom and prohibition of torture as necessary conditions for all. In 1999, New Zealand granted legal protections for great apes. Germany added the words “and animals” in 2002 to a legal obligation requiring the state to respect and protect the dignity of human beings. In a world-first, the Balearic Islands approved a resolution granting legal rights to all great apes in 2007. A year later, Spain passed resolutions urging compliance with the Great Ape Project. In Argentina 2015, a judge decided she “wanted to tell society something new; that animals are sentient beings and that the first right they have is our obligation to respect them”, granting a sweet, curious orangutan called Sandra legal personhood.

Let us wish Sandra, the first non-human person, all the best as she settles into her new home. Let us praise the work of those advancing the granting of personhood while taking the time to look closer to home to discover and confront our speciesism. Let us work as one to challenge the way things are and begin, together, to welcome in all the other beings with whom we share our beautiful world.

Sandra now lives at The Center for Great Apes, the only accredited sanctuary for orangutans in the Americas.

Leigh Venus

Originally published in 2020 as a thought piece for The Vegan SocietyFuture Normal‘ campaign

Photos: Natacha Pisarenko, Juan Mabromata