Landmark judgement declares Chimpanzees have legal rights

Dec 01, 2016 by afdadmin
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By Michelle Helou 


Cecilia, a 30 year old chimpanzee, was born in captivity and lived her whole life in an Argentinian Zoo. She was held in deplorable conditions, in a small cement cage and with no trees to exercise in or games to entertain herself. She had no straw to lie down on or blankets to keep her warm.

During Summer the temperature reached up to forty degrees, heating the walls and floor of Cecilia’s tiny cage. In Winter the temperature would dip below zero, and Cecilia was left exposed and freezing.

As if these conditions weren’t bad enough, Cecilia’s only companions, Charly and Xuxa, died. Since January 2015, she was kept on her own. Chimpanzees are extremely social animals and these conditions posed a serious harm to her mental and physical wellbeing.

What happened?

Thanks to a landmark legal case fighting for Cecilia’s right to be free, she will soon be transferred to a chimpanzee sanctuary in Brazil.

The Great Ape Sanctuary in Brazil

The Great Ape Sanctuary in Brazil

Lawyers used the writ of “habeas corpus” which is commonly used to challenge the illegal imprisonment of a person. But this time it was successfully used to free an animal unlawfully held in detention.

In what looks to be one of the most animal-friendly judgements in recent times, Judge Maria Alejandra declared “If we serve Cecilia’s well-being it will not be Cecilia who will owe a debt to us, but it is for us to thank her for the opportunity to grow collectively and to feel a little more humane.”

What if Cecilia’s living conditions had been better?

The State argued that Cecilia had no rights and attempted to have her transferred to another zoo with supposedly better conditions. However Judge Alejandra did not accept this argument.

“Is a cage, even with large dimensions, the appropriate place? And the negative response springs immediately,” Judge Alejandra stated.

Cecilia cage

Judge Alejandra made the point that even if Cecilia’s conditions in the zoo were improved, it was not appropriate for her to be confined in captivity for entertainment. This is an important move away from the common “welfare” rhetoric often used by the judiciary and moving into the territory of animal “rights”.

Animals are sentient

In addition, Judge Alejandra criticised the classification of animals as “things”, since the intrinsic nature of things is to be inanimate objects.

Chimpanzees are intelligent, self- aware, manifest grief, express emotions such as joy, frustration, desire or deception, possess moral status, and possess feelings of affection. The judgement recognised this and declared animals as sentient beings and stressed that scientific experts unanimously agree that chimpanzees share 99.4% of their genetic identity with humans.

Judge Alejandra specified that she was not trying to equate animals with human beings. Instead she sought to recognise that primates are non-human persons with legal rights.


In the Judge’s mind, it was not a question of granting animals the rights that human beings possess. But rather, accepting and understanding once and for all that these beings are sentient beings, who are subjects of rights and should have the fundamental rights to be born, live, grow and die in the environment that is their own.

How can this case help dolphins?

While this case concerned Cecilia, a chimpanzee, many of the Judge’s comments related to all animals.

sad captive dolphin

In closing remarks, the Judge quoted Kant, Buddha and Gandhi:

“We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” – Immanual Kant

“When a man has pity on all living creatures then only is he noble.” Buddha

“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Gandhi

This case takes a huge step forward by recognising animals as sentient, recognising their rights and, most importantly, protecting those rights.

It will no doubt be used as precedent in important legal actions for dolphins and other animals in the near future.