Sandra Dreams Forests – Translation

Sandra Dreams Forests – Translation


► Lupa is our new app for Spanish learners who want to study with Radio Ambulante’s stories. More info at


 [Daniel Alarcón]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

The protagonist of today’s episode is named Sandra. And she’s very special.

[María Eugenia]: Sandra is one… one more resident of… of this area.

She had her nicknames. One… one nickname was, well, “the Redhead,” “Chubby.”

[Andrés Gil]: And with Sandra what happened to me when I went, she generated that. I formed a deep connection with her.

[Elena Liberatori]: You talked to her and she looked at you, she looked in your eyes. I’m sure she understood me.

[Daniel]: Sandra has long and somewhat messy hair. She’s a vegetarian and her culinary tastes are clear.

[María]: She always liked sweet things. That sort of thing. Raisins, honey.

[Daniel]: Sandra also likes to flip through magazines and run her long thin fingers across the pages.

[Andrés]: I’ve seen Sandra flip through a Genios magazine and cut out something that she was interested in and keep it.

[Daniel]: She has an elegant and sophisticated gait.

[Elena]: I found that Sandra was very feline, very smooth, very smooth in her movement.

[Daniel]: Sandra spent 25 years in Palermo, a densely populated district in Buenos Aires, though, like so many Argentineans, she has family sprinkled across the globe. She was born in Europe. She has roots in Asia. And despite having spent more than two decades in the city, she’s happier among the trees. Some people call her a “forest person.”

[María]: Well, to us Sandra is Sandra, “Chubby.” But officially speaking Sandra is a female orangutan.

[Daniel]: Oh, I forgot to mention that. That. Sandra is an orangutan.

And the people who care about her, who want her to be happy, never imagined that helping her would lead them to question the concept of humanity itself.

Our producer Aneris Casassus brings us this story.

[Aneris Casassus]: To learn more about Sandra’s life, I went to see someone who’s known her for a long time. She is one of the voices you heard before.

[María]: My name is María Eugenia Dahdah, here at the park they know me as “Coqui.”

[Aneris]: Coqui is the coordinator of the animal behavior department of what today is the Eco-park, but until 2016 it was the Buenos Aires Zoo. She met Sandra in 1999 when she was a volunteer there.

[María]: One of the things I remember most is that at the time I was painting my nails red and that was something that really caught her attention. She was always looking at my hands. On days when I went in without my nails painted red, the first thing she did was look at my hands. That was what started getting my attention about her.

[Aneris]: With the incident with her fingernails, Coqui was learning that like us — and all primates — vision was Sandra’s most developed sense.

They were getting to know each other, little by little. And as she spent more time with her, Sandra awoke in Coqui something that had always been with her.

[María]: My love for animals that I’ve had since I was a little girl. The love that such a… a beautiful, intelligent, and unique animal like an orangutan can create in you.

[Aneris]: Sandra arrived in Buenos Aires from Germany on August 1st, 1994. Five years before Coqui would meet her. 

She spent her days in the zoo in an enclosure with fake rocks surrounded by glass. Of course, it had to be glass so all the visitors could see her well. There were hundreds a day. Families. Students with their teachers. They all went to the zoo to see Mara the elephant, Shaki the giraffe, the polar bear Winner, and of course Sandra, who seemed like the funniest. I saw her there myself, with my niece, long before reporting this story.

The Buenos Aires Zoo hadn’t had orangutans for 20 years, so her arrival caused a lot of excitement: she was an exotic animal who originally was only found on the other side of the world, on two islands in southeast Asia called Sumatra and Borneo.

That part about the two islands is important because orangutans are divided into subspecies by region.

[María]: Their behavior is similar but different at the same time.

The orangu… Orangutans who live in Sumatra are rarely seen on the… on the ground because they have different predators in areas where there are many more tigers, for example. Orangutans from Borneo on the other hand are seen more frequently on the… on the… on the ground because they don’t have that same latent danger others have.

[Aneris]: Sandra is a hybrid of both kinds of orangutans: one of her grandparents is from Sumatra while the rest of her family is from Borneo.

[María]: She has in her genes a mixture that doesn’t occur in nature. Those populations don’t mix.

[Aneris]: They could never mix because to get from Borneo to Sumatra, you need to cross the Java Sea. A hybrid like Sandra couldn’t exist if it weren’t for human intervention.

Humans have always been interested in other primates, in particular large simians like chimpanzees, gorillas, or orangutans like Sandra. Seeing in amazement how similar they are to us.

[María]: They’re very intelligent animals.

[Aneris]: Sandra always had a big audience at the zoo. People wanted to see her, see her doing funny things.

[María]: In Sandra’s case she also, uh, had highly developed fine motor skills because he could tie knots, untie knots, put on gloves, take them off.

[Aneris]: The image can be impressive: seeing Sandra do certain movements as any human would. The cognitive capacity of an orangutan, in particular, is very similar to that of a child between seven and nine years old.

[María]: They can solve problems. They make associations all the time. And in fact, something very important about primates, in general, is that most of them use tools.

[Aneris]: I’ll give you an example. The zookeepers left fruit for Sandra hanging high up in her enclosure, and they left different-sized sticks. She chose from all of the sticks the one that would work the best to hit the fruit so it would fall to the floor.

And I have to tell you something else I didn’t know that really surprised me. The connection between the brain and the muscles is different from species to species. For example, when we see a chimp in the wild showing its teeth, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s smiling, as humans would interpret it, but instead, it can mean that they’re afraid or it can be a sign of aggression.

But orangutans in captivity are able to understand how we humans use gestures to express emotion. What they mean for us.

[María]: What tends to happen with animals when they spend a lot of time with humans is they start picking up on what everything means. And Sandra clearly can tell things apart.

She can recognize faces and gestures and associate those gestures with others that are different.

[Aneris]: And that’s not all. Coqui told me that she also prefers some of her caretakers to others. She got along with some people better than others, just like any of us.

According to Coqui, Sandra was friendly and sociable with the zoo’s visitors.

[María]: She would always go up to… to the edge of her enclosure to see people. You never saw any sign that could lead us to believe that the animal might be scared.

[Aneris]: But because there was a large crowd at the zoo that was something that could have easily happened. That Sandra, for example, could have gotten scared and started beating the glass when visitors approached. And Sandra, let’s not forget, is seven times stronger than a human being. It was a risk they were taking when they put her on display.

Early on, when Sandra arrived in Buenos Aires, she lived with Max, another orangutan who had come from Germany with her. However, after some time, the owners decided to send Max to another zoo they had in Córdoba. It was bureaucratic, a business decision. They weren’t thinking about how it would affect the orangutans.

But Sandra and Max still saw each other every once in a while. The plan was for Sandra to have a child. Sandra would travel to Córdoba to visit Max, or he could go to Buenos Aires. It was an eight-hour trip there and another eight hours coming back. It was an exhausting trip for the primates.

Finally, in the middle of 1998, Sandra was pregnant. And after eight and a half months, she gave birth to her child who they called Gembira.

But Sandra didn’t adapt to the situation.

[María]: The reality is that she didn’t… she wasn’t seen displaying parental behaviors. She didn’t care if he ate or not.

[Aneris]: And that’s because since Sandra had never seen a mother orangutan, she hadn’t been able to learn from her environment how a mother behaved.

[María]: It’s something that can happen with animals in captivity. Many times, there are some behaviors that are innate, that are intrinsic. There are behaviors that are learned.

[Aneris]: And even though at the zoo they showed Sandra videos of mother orangutans and human mothers for her to imitate, it wasn’t enough. Without Sandra’s care, Gembira was taken to the zoo’s childcare center where three people took turns taking care of him.

Gembira spent almost a year in that center…

[María]: And when he goes back to living with Sandra, the relationship between the two was that of two orangutans living in the same space. They shared resources, uh, they slept near each other. She didn’t act like a mother, but she did behave like a companion.

[Aneris]: Sandra and Gembira lived together for a year, until 2001 when Gembira was transferred to China. And once again, Sandra was left in her enclosure alone. This time for good. 

As we said, Sandra never knew any life outside of captivity. It was the same life as all the other animals at the Buenos Aires Zoo.

You could even say that she was used to that. Well, if it’s possible to get used to that. But in December 2012, during one of the typical heat waves that hit Buenos Aires in the summer.


[Journalist 1]: The Buenos Aires Zoo is in mourning.

[Journalist 2]: The zoo’s last polar bear died, a victim of the extreme temperatures.

[Journalist 3]: The heatwave and an outcome that is as sad as it is unexpected, right?, at the Buenos Aires Zoo.

[Aneris]: Early in the morning of December 25th, Winner the polar bear died not only from being unable to handle the 50-degree heat [122 degrees Fahrenheit] but also from the stress caused by fireworks.

That got the attention of a group of people who were opposed to animals living in zoos. They were worried that Sandra would end up like Winner. But to change anything, they knew they needed to bring the case to court.

[Andrés]: My name is Andrés Gil Domínguez. I’m a professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Buenos Aires, the University of La Pampa, and the University of Salamanca in Spain.

[Aneris]: He’s also a researcher and trial attorney. In 2014, Gil Domínguez received a call. It was from the president of the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights, the AFADA [by its initials in Spanish].

[Andrés]: And he told me he needed a trial attorney to partner with him in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires with the Sandra orangutan case.

[Aneris]: That’s because AFADA had been making claims, unsuccessfully, for the rights of several animals in captivity, and now they wanted to try to do something for Sandra. After the Winner tragedy, AFADA viewed their fight for Sandra as even more urgent.

Additionally, the Association wanted to prove that Sandra’s rights had been infringed when they took away her freedom.

Gil Domínguez didn’t hesitate to take the case. He’s an animal lover, and…

[Andrés]: The idea of being able to represent animals in court regarding their rights was exotic.

[Aneris]: That’s because according to the Civil Code of Argentina, animals are considered — and this is a quote — “movable goods” that can “be transported from one place to another, whether they are moving on their own or by an external force.” You heard that right: movable goods, in other words, things that can be moved around like a table, a chair, or a car.

This definition of animals as “movable goods” may sound completely absurd to us, but it has a certain logic within the law, which in the modern tradition holds that only “people” as such have rights. Anything that isn’t a person is excluded. For that very reason, to give rights to organizations or companies, at the end of the 18th century, they had to create the concept of “legal persons [legal entities].”

It’s somewhat complicated and it’s based on legal theory. But basically, in the eyes of the law, there are only two options: either you’re a physical or legal person, and you have rights, or you’re an object. And animals fall into this category. Since they have no personhood, the law doesn’t come into play there. They can’t claim any rights, beyond not being abused. That’s the law in Argentina, but it’s not very different in most countries in the world.

But Gil Domínguez didn’t agree that Sandra was a thing, not even on paper. So, he started putting together the case.

His first argument for proving that Sandra’s rights were being violated was the most obvious: an animal like Sandra needs large spaces to move around and needs trees. But no, Sandra… 

[Andrés]: Lived in a concrete enclosure whose walls faced out onto the street and you can see buildings and the DirecTV antennas.

[Aneris]: Besides, according to Gil Domínguez, Sandra’s medical history hadn’t been updated in four years.

[Andrés]: There was no kind of control or parameters. My Siamese cats had a more robust medical history than Sandra did.

[Aneris]: Plus, Sandra was overweight…

[Andrés]: Because she wasn’t getting enough exercise. She was — this is maybe a little anthropomorphic, but… but so people can understand — she was sad and dissatisfied with her existence.

[Aneris]: Gil Domínguez’s view was very different from Coqui’s, who saw her as happy and playful in her day-to-day life.

But for Gil Domínguez, Sandra’s life in that zoo — where she had to constantly interact with visitors — wasn’t a nice thing. No, what it was doing was reductive.

[Andrés]: As if she were a thing. A thing on display.

[Aneris]: But that’s because on top of that, according to Gil Domínguez, when Sandra didn’t interact with visitors…

[Andrés]: The crowd would get angry and bang the glass and more because she wasn’t putting on a show for them. Because she wasn’t performing for them.

[Aneris]: According to AFADA, the zoo didn’t have adequate controls to guarantee Sandra’s well-being. They were even putting her at risk because, for example, they allowed any visitor to feed her.

Knowing if Sandra was OK — like Coqui says — or depressed — like Gil Domínguez says — is complicated. And that’s because we’re talking about two very different ways of looking at her situation. On one hand, there’s Coqui, who started working at the zoo with the conviction that it could serve as a place of conservation for the species there and of education for society. And on the other hand, there’s Gil Domínguez who saw Sandra’s confinement as something cruel and unjustifiable. And as for the only one who knew how she felt, there was no way of asking her.

When Gil Domínguez took the case, AFADA had already worked out their legal strategy. It was very unorthodox: they wanted to present in a criminal court, in Sandra’s name, a legal recourse known as habeas corpus.

I’ll explain: this recourse is used to demand a detained person’s fundamental right to appear before a judge immediately and determine if their arrest was legal or not. If it’s not legal, they have to let them go right away. It’s that simple.

And even though Gil Domínguez liked the proposal, something worried him…

[Andrés]: If they do issue the order for release or transfer, then what am I supposed to do with Sandra? I would have to bring her home, walking down Las Heras Avenue.

[Aneris]: But what he did like about habeas corpus is that it’s the fastest judicial process. Wanting to move the case forward as soon as possible, they decided to make the request in Sandra’s name.

They presented it on November 13th, 2014 in a criminal court in Buenos Aires.

[Andrés]: In the academic world it was treated as a joke. It was treated like it… like I was doing something exotic that wasn’t serious.

[Aneris]: Because, of course, although habeas corpus is a basic, universal right, it’s only universal for human beings, not for animals.

Gil Domínguez heard the criticism among his colleagues and in the hallways of his law school, but they didn’t make him change his mind.

[Andrés]: I don’t care about being ridiculed if I am convinced of an idea.

[Aneris]: So, I went ahead with the process.

The claim of habeas corpus was against the zoo’s concessionary company and against the government of the city of Buenos Aires, the owner of the land. They asked that Sandra be freed immediately because they considered the zoo to be like a prison, and in the zoo, she was serving a prison sentence unjustly. And even though the recourse was controversial because it dealt with an animal, it did manage to make noise and start the legal process.

The zoo defended itself right away. The person you’re about to hear is Adrián Sestelo, the chief of biology at the zoo, talking about Sandra’s case with the media:

[Adrián Sestelo]: She was born in a zoo and she’s spent her whole life in a zoo. In a free life, she wouldn’t know how to react to a predator. She wouldn’t know how to react in the face of danger, uh, she wouldn’t know how to react or how to look for food or how to make a shelter for herself. That’s why it would be very harmful to her to let her loose in the… in the wild.

[Aneris]: And in another interview, he explained why not freeing Sandra wasn’t just about the fact that she doesn’t know anything about life outside of the zoo, but it was also about the kind of animal she was.

[Adrián]: In Sandra’s case, you have to bear in mind that she is a… a hybrid of two species of… of orangutans. So, the recommendation is that these hybrids never be put in contact with purebred animals because it presents a harm to the species in particular.

[Aneris]: Releasing her in Borneo or Sumatra would affect the conservation of the species that live there. And she would most likely not survive.

For Sestelo, the whole case was a confused mess coming from someone who didn’t know much about animals.

[Adrián]: To say she’s sad is a mistake. It’s a conceptual error. It’s a very subjective argument about a person’s perception and not an objective argument from someone… from a professional who studies animal behavior and conduct.

[Aneris]: Meanwhile, Coqui, who was Sandra’s caretaker and had spent so much time with her, was upset to hear what was being said.

[María]: On a personal level it really hurt me that so many people don’t realize how much we, the people who are in the park, work.

[Aneris]: Besides, the zoo argued that Sandra wasn’t suffering abuse.

[María]: No… it’s not like we saw Sandra with cuts, with wounds, with… I don’t know, banging against the glass. No, we never saw that sort of thing. In terms of behavior and health, she was an animal that was OK.

[Aneris]: But Coqui was well aware that the zoo was a business. And a lot of the time, money came before the animals’ well being. For example, they hadn’t even put in ropes for Sandra to climb in her enclosure because they were very expensive.

And yes, Coqui knew that Sandra’s conditions could be better, but she also believed that her immediate release under habeas corpus wasn’t what was best for the orangutan.

The lawyer’s request for the zoo to free Sandra under habeas corpus was settled in just two days. In the courts of first and second instance, it was rejected for one very simple reason.

[Andrés]: Because they said that habeas corpus hadn’t been conceived for a situation of this kind.

[Daniel]: In other words, legally speaking, it wasn’t a valid recourse for making a claim for an animal. There was nothing they could do. So, Sandra was staying where she was.

But Sandra’s lawyers weren’t ready to give up so easily. They were going to do whatever it took to improve conditions for their client.

We’ll be right back.

[It’s Been a Minute]: Been a Minute is a talk show with heart. Every week, they interview people who deserve your attention — and at the end of every week, they wrap up the news with other journalists. Listen to It’s Been a Minute from NPR as they make sense of the world through conversation

[Code Switch]: Whether it’s the athlete protests, the Muslim travel ban, gun violence, school reform, or just the music that’s giving you life right now. Race is the subtext to so much of the American story. And on NPR’s Code Switch, we make that subject, text. Listen on Wednesdays and subscribe

[Ernesto]: Hi, I’m Ernesto and I listen from Cambridge, in the US. I’m part of the membership program because Radio Ambulante tells the best stories that allow us to know and celebrate the diversity of Latin America, and that unite us across time and distance. You can all join at

[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, we met Sandra, an orangutan who was born in captivity and had lived in the Buenos Aires zoo since 1994. Until 20 years later a group of lawyers decided to present a legal recourse called habeas corpus to try to free her. They argued that Sandra had been deprived of her freedom illegitimately and arbitrarily, and that her living conditions posed a risk to her health.

Sandra’s caretakers denied these accusations and said that in fact, setting her free would put her life at risk. And moreover, setting her free would put the lives of other species at risk. The suit quickly made it to trial where it was rejected by the courts of first and second instance.

But of course, Sandra’s story doesn’t end there.

Aneris Casassus continues this story.

[Aneris]: The lawyer Gil Domínguez and AFADA, the organization that fought for the rights of animals, appealed those first two rulings and the cause made it to the Federal Criminal Cassation Chamber, who would have the last word in Sandra’s case.

And here something happened that no one expected. On December 18th, 2014, the court gave a very concise ruling, it was barely a page and a half of text. And though the judges didn’t accept the claim of habeas corpus, on that page and a half, they did do something unprecedented and it was what was needed in order to give standing to Sandra’s claim: they recognized her as a “non-human person”. With that ruling, Sandra became a subject of laws.

The ruling didn’t give much explanation of the legal grounds for considering Sandra a non-human person, but there is a clue: they cite a book that was published by a former justice of the Argentinean Supreme Court in 2011 where he discusses the laws that already existed to penalize animal abuse. There he argues that in recognizing this crime, really what it recognized is that animals have rights and one of them is not to be abused.

Following that logic, since it is recognized by law that animals have at least that right, a legal person is being recognized: a non-human person. And from there it follows to respect Sandra as a subject of law.

The lawyer Gil Domínguez couldn’t believe what they’d achieved.

[Andrés]: I felt like we had changed the world. Nothing would be the same for non-human animals after that moment. Animals weren’t going to be viewed as inanimate objects anymore.

[Aneris]: The ruling had big consequences right away. Sandra became world-famous.


[Journalist 1]: The fate of an orangutan named Sandra is being decided by a court in Argentina.

[Journalist 2]: A dicembre, un tribunale argentino l’aveva già riconosciuta come “persona non umana”. 

[Journalist 3]: For the first time, an orangutan has been considered, in concrete terms, “a legal non-human person.”

[Aneris]: With that victory, AFADA’s next step was to present a new lawsuit to request Sandra’s transfer to a sanctuary. It wasn’t clear how this new step would go because the ruling from the Cassation Chamber was so sparse that no one understood what its real implications were. And it was even less clear what another judge would decide in this new suit.

[Elena Liberatori]: The file arrived in… early in the year, let’s say March of 2015.

[Aneris]: This is Elena Liberatori, the judge for the City of Buenos Aires who received AFADA’s lawsuit.

[Elena]: My first impression was that I was very surprised because it was precisely about an animal and we had never had cases where, well, there were animals, uh, as subjects of law.

[Aneris]: Cases on the broadest array of topics make it to her office. She has to resolve subjects like contamination in metro cars, the occupation of schools by high school students, or the disposal of waste in the city. And all of a sudden, she gets one that involves an orangutan. And Elena Liberatori didn’t know anything about orangutans.

[Elena]: So that was a big challenge because I like getting cases that I don’t know anything about. And I’ll say something that Noelia, my secretary, doesn’t like when I say it, but it’s that we judges don’t know anything.

[Aneris]: They don’t know anything, perhaps…

[Elena]: But we’re going to know.

[Aneris]: The judge had two things to settle: first, if Sandra possessed rights, and if that meant that she should be recognized as a non-human person. And second, if Sandra should be freed or transferred to another location, according to what was best for her.

So, the judge got to reading and researching examples from other disciplines: biology, anthropology, sociology, urbanism. It was weeks of research with her team, trying to understand what bases existed for considering an animal a subject of law.

[Elena]: We called together the most important international experts from Australia, Canada, the United States, and we had hearings over Skype.

[Aneris]: In addition, specialists from Argentina formed a technical table to produce an opinion relating to Sandra’s situation. It was made up of professors from the Department of Veterinary Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires and the National University of La Plata, specialists in animal behavior, experts in primates. And someone from the court started making weekly visits to the zoo.

They spent months studying the issue. In this trial, the most important thing was understanding a concept that Gil Domínguez had laid out in the lawsuit: he argued that Sandra was a sentient being, and that that capacity to feel was what made her a “non-human person.”

And according to what Liberatori found…

[Elena]: Sentience is not debatable anymore and it’s been scientifically confirmed.

Scientists say that there is conclusive and overwhelming evidence to establish that animal sentience exists — happiness, joy, or sadness and pain — exist in them because they have the same neurological and cerebral structures that humans do.

[Aneris]: Not all animals because there are some that don’t have a central nervous system, maybe they aren’t the first animals that come to mind because they’re animals like the starfish or sea sponge.

But in those animals that do have a central nervous system, they’ve shown what Liberatori is explaining.

[Elena]: So, we’re even talking about birds, an octopus. In other words, we’re talking about the… the animal world. The animal world has sentience as human beings do.

[Aneris]: Sentience sets the minimum threshold from which animal rights are recognized. Although, of course, something else has to be added to that: large simians, like Sandra, have high cognitive development and for that reason, their rights should be broader.

But according to Gil Domínguez, every animal must have some kind of protection in accordance with its cognitive capacity. Even though there is still no formal divide as to which protections should be granted to which animals, he cites one possible framework proposed by two Canadian philosophers:

[Andrés]: There are wild animals, who are totally sovereign, and what human beings need to do is guarantee non-interference in their sovereign environment.

[Aneris]: Then there would be domestic animals, those who live alongside us.

[Andrés]: And who are political subjects and would need to have representation. There would have to be a public defender of… of domestic animals.

[Aneris]: Finally, and perhaps this is the most controversial, there are what’s called “liminal” animals.

[Andrés]: Which are those that share space with us without being pets, like rats, cockroaches, pigeons.

[Aneris]: And who also have to be considered. Accepting those ideas was still very far afield of what they were demanding in their lawsuit. But it was possible that the ruling that Liberatori would serve not just to change conditions for Sandra, but also, in the future, other animals as well.

Finally, on October 21st of 2015, almost a year after Sandra was declared a “non-human person,” Judge Liberatori issued her ruling: 13 pages explaining the reason why she agreed with recognizing Sandra as a subject of law. She also ordered the government of the City of Buenos Aires to guarantee “adequate conditions in the habitat and necessary activities to preserve her cognitive abilities”. The table of experts would also evaluate it if it was possible to transfer Sandra to a sanctuary. Liberatori had no doubt: Sandra was a non-human person.

The city government appealed the ruling, but the Court of Administrative Claims, Taxes, and Other Disputes of the City of Buenos Aires, though they refused to confirm or deny Sandra’s status as a “non-human person,” they did confirm that the government had to guarantee adequate conditions for Sandra, and they continued to recognize her as a “sentient being.”

The truth is that after the ruling, the zoo was in the sights of the justice system and Sandra’s situation began to change. This is Coqui again, one of Sandra’s caretakers.

[María]: After the… this whole process, we were able to get a lot more resources than what we had at that time.

[Aneris]: The zoo’s administration started giving them more money so Coqui and the other caretakers could improve conditions in Sandra’s habitat, and they could plan more activities to stimulate her mentally.

Coqui soon started to realize that finally, that the case had been brought to court wasn’t so bad.

[María]: Even though at first it scared us or we weren’t really sure what was going to happen, later when the trial was underway, we came to understand that this was the best thing that could happen for us.

[Aneris]: For Coqui, recognizing Sandra as a non-human person served to continue pushing forward something that she had wanted since she arrived at the zoo.

[María]: And that’s for the animals to be OK, especially the ones that live in captivity and who can’t decide a bunch of things like the animals that are in the wild.

[Aneris]: A legal precedent had been created that would change how institutions were run, and that was the change the judge was looking for with her ruling. But, according to Liberatori, it has to go much further.

[Elena]: It is necessary that international and national legislation stop being anthropocentric and put nature at the center.

[Aneris]: This is a position that already exists in Ecuador’s constitution, in which the Earth is considered a subject of law, and in which anyone can make a claim for the rights of nature, without having to prove that they were personally affected, as is the case in other countries.

It’s a new way of relating to our environment. Where the center of everything isn’t us, but nature.

Sandra’s case had, as they say, kicked the hornet’s nest. And in June of 2016, a few months after Liberatori’s ruling, it was announced that after 128 years the zoo would be turned into an eco-park. In other words, a park without animals in captivity. The government of the city of Buenos Aires got rid of the private concessionary company and started working on transferring the more than 1,300 animals that live there. They would take them to sanctuaries and ecological reserves.

While they were looking for a place to transfer Sandra, the authorities at the now eco-park decided that visitors couldn’t come to her enclosure anymore.

The table of experts that was formed in Liberatori’s ruling evaluated possible locations for her.

[Elena]: We looked for objective criteria, like in public bidding. And then a protocol was established: the one that checked all the most boxes was the winner. Well, that would be the place Sandra went, and the place that checked all the boxes was the Center of Great Apes.

[Aneris]: The Center for Great Apes. It’s in Florida, in the United States. It’s a 40-hectare [~99 acres] nature reserve where orangutans and chimpanzees that were rescued or retired from the performance and exotic animal industry live. It’s located in a forested area in the rural region of Wauchula.

The Center agreed to take in Sandra, so it was time to begin a series of bureaucratic steps that would take time.

On December 28, 2017, just two years after her ruling, Judge Liberatori was able to sign the transfer order. With Sandra’s departure, there would no longer be any orangutans in Argentina.

[Elena]: The decision to go through with the transfer was very hard, emotionally for me as well because I felt like if she stayed in Argentina, well, in some way I could continue to act as her tutelary.

[Aneris]: Act as her tutelary, in other words, she would continue to protect her, to make sure they met the adequate conditions of her care.

But it was already decided that Sandra was leaving. With the transfer order issued, Coqui and her team started training Sandra for the journey.

[María]: It was important to us that she not be sedated on the… on the journey.

[Aneris]: Because being sedated for so long could cause respiratory problems.

[María]: We worked to train her for more than a year and a half, in which time she became familiar with the transport carrier. She started to react to the carrier very calmly.

[Aneris]: Sandra would be in the plane’s cargo hold in a metal box with a set of double doors and some small windows. Her first stop was Dallas. She would go on a commercial flight with American Airlines.

[Elena]: I can’t imagine how I’d be able to handle those 14 hours in the air, you know? Me, knowing myself, flying, uh, I said, “poor thing” (laughs).

[Aneris]: Before the trip, Sandra also had a full physical: blood tests, chest x-ray, abdominal sonogram, EKG.

Finally, the big day arrived. On September 26th, 2019, Sandra had to enter the transport carrier to get on a truck to Ezeiza International Airport.

Coqui and Elena saw as Sandra left her enclosure in the eco-park and went toward the box.

[Elena]: When she left her… what was her habitat, she starts cleaning a… a big orange tube, a large tube, like the kind kids can play inside. And she takes a cloth and cleans it. I say she left her room clean. 

[Aneris]: Coqui and Elena accompanied Sandra to the airport and stayed with her until take off.

[María]: I felt a lot of things. I felt a lot of emotion. I felt relieved to see how she was handling everything… the whole process of getting to the plane.

[Elena]: And we talked to her and she looked, she looked into your eyes. She would look in your eyes. And also it was the farewell, so that was hard.

[Aneris]: It was a long journey for Sandra. After 14 hours in the plane to Dallas, Sandra traveled another seven on a highway to Kansas. Which is where she stayed in a mandatory quarantine to make sure she wasn’t carrying any illness from Argentina that could affect other species. After completing the quarantine, Sandra was again taken via highway to Florida. On November 5th of 2019, she arrived at the Center for Great Apes, her new and final home.

Two days after Sandra arrived at the Center, Coqui traveled with another one of the caretakers to help Sandra in her transition. When they got there…

[María]: We saw her… seven meters up, making an enormous, uh, divine nest. She… she saw us and right away she came down to see us, which was very exciting for us. I think that it was also for her, like, “This place is incredible, but how nice that you came because I know you” (laughs).

[Aneris]: Coqui was fascinated by Sandra’s new home. What caught her attention most was that the enclosures were partially in the open air and there…

[María]: They had these things like domes. They’re circular, very tall, and there in the middle of a… of a damp forest and all the vegetation covers the dome. So, it feels like you’re in the middle of the trees.

[Aneris]: Sandra finally lived in a forest.

Coqui and the other caretaker were at the Center for 12 days, and then they had to return to Argentina.

[María]: I don’t know when we’ll see her again, but we left her in a place where, nothing, we saw her develop. We saw her making use of her whole enclosure. We saw her interacting with her new caretakers. We saw her try new fruit. We painted…

[Aneris]: On February 14th, Sandra turned 34 and they had a big celebration. On the Center’s Instagram, they posted pictures of the festivities. Sandra opening a bunch of presents and an enormous sign that read “Happy Birthday.” The life expectancy of an orangutan is between 60 and 70 years old. Sandra is in the prime of her life and she has a new world to discover.

[Daniel]: Sandra’s life changed forever. And without knowing it, she changed a lot of other things. At a legal level, her case is now taken as a precedent to claim rights for other animals. Thanks to Sandra, the chimpanzee Cecilia was freed from a zoo in Mendoza, also in Argentina, and she now lives in a sanctuary in Brazil. The case was also considered in Colombia to request the release of Chucho the bear from the Barranquilla zoo and spark debate about animals in captivity.

Aneris Casassus is a producer at Radio Ambulante. She lives in Buenos Aires.

This story was edited by Camila Segura, Victoria Estrada, Luis Fernando Vargas, and by me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Jorge Caraballo, Xochitl Fabián, Rémy Lozano, Miranda Mazariegos, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Desirée Yepez.

Fernanda Guzmán is our editorial intern.

Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.

Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, and it’s produced and mixed on the program Hindenburg PRO.

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.


Aneris Casassus

Camila Segura, Luis Fernando Vargas, Victoria Estrada, and Daniel Alarcón

Andrés Azpiri

Andrés Azpiri

Sabrina Pérez