Happy is an Asian elephant that has lived in captivity at the Bronx Zoo since 1977.
In 2018, lawyers for a group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project went to court to demand her release from the elephant sanctuary. They argued that “autonomous and extraordinarily complex cognitively” animals such as elephants and chimpanzees should not be discounted as dumb animals that humans can capture, imprison and parade at will. Instead, they should be treated as “legal persons” with certain basic legal rights, including the right to “physical freedom”.
It was a bold argument, but it failed. In mid-June, The New York Superior Court rejected it.stating that no, elephants are not really human, and while they deserve to be treated with “proper care and empathy”, they do not have legal rights like humans.
But the Human Rights Project does not give up. Less than a month later, he moved to the next battlefield – in California, where He recently asked a Supreme Court judge order the Fresno-Chaffee Zoo to explain why it “illegally imprisons” three elephants.
Perhaps California will be more sympathetic to the group’s arguments, which raise deep moral and ethical questions about human interaction with the natural world.
The California petition was launched on behalf of Nolwazi and Amahle — two African elephants born in a 54,000-acre national park in Swaziland and taken from their natural habitat to zoos in the United States — and Woosmusi, an African elephant born at Sun Safari Zoo. Diego. A park. All three are currently held captive in Fresno.
The radical notion again put forward by lawyers is that the three elephants are entitled to habeas corpus, which historically has been granted only to humans. Habeas corpus, rooted in the common law for almost 1,000 years, is a legal principle that allows a prisoner to be brought before a court to determine whether he or she is lawfully detained and to seek release.
If the petition is granted, the zoo will be ordered to explain and justify the detention of the elephants. The court will then decide if they should be released and sent to a shelter.
Jake Davis and Monica Miller, staff lawyers for the Human Rights Project, expressed optimism, saying they are gaining a little more ground with each new case and that they think their argument is going mainstream.
I know I’m starting to sympathize more with what I initially thought was outlandish.
There are a number of arguments at the heart of this case: that captivity causes great harm to elephants, that the organization has the right to petition on elephants’ behalf, and that the right to habeas corpus must be developed and expanded to keep pace with “science, justice and, reason, ethics, justice … and the progress of society.”
The petition notes that the Fresno Chaffee Zoo was recently named one of the “10 Worst Elephant Zoos in the US” by In Defense of Animals.
Of course, no one is arguing that elephants are in fact humans, but simply saying that they are in a “similar position” to humans for the purposes of habeas corpus. They are only entitled to “personality” in the legal sense, just as corporations and ships can be persons in the eyes of the law.
In what way are elephants similar to humans? They have long-term memory, learning abilities, empathy and self-awareness.
“They live in families; they protect their young; they mourn their dead; they do not eat other animals, and they are not caged, isolated or tortured.” wrote Harvard historian Jill Lepore. in the Atlantic. “They seem to understand themselves as individuals with thoughts different from those of other beings. They suffer and they understand suffering.”
The New York and Fresno cases are part of an ongoing year-long campaign to give legal rights to non-human animals. An earlier case involving a chimpanzee’s right to habeas corpus also made its way to New York’s high court, where it was unsuccessful but received strong words of support from one judge.
“Does a rational non-human animal that thinks, plans and values life as human beings, have the right to the protection of the law against arbitrary cruelties and forced detentions to which he or she has been subjected?” Judge Eugene Fahey wrote in 2018. “This is not just a matter of definition, but a deep dilemma of ethics and politics that needs our attention.”
Then came the incident with Happy. This time there were two sympathetic judges is a huge step forward. In your disagreement Judge Rowan D. Wilson noted that “the rights we grant to others determine who we are as a society.”
I don’t mean to say that this is a simple problem. There are many counterarguments.
For example, the Bronx Zoo noted that Happy is kept in accordance with all laws and accepted standards of care.
The New York Court of Appeals held that habeas corpus is intended to protect humans and has never been applied to animals other than humans.
Extending the definition would lead, in the court’s view, to a “maze of questions”. This would call into question the very assumptions underpinning not only farm animal ownership and laboratory testing of animals, but also pet ownership.
“What about dolphins or dogs? What about cows, pigs or chickens, species that are usually kept under conditions much more stringent than the elephant enclosure at the Bronx Zoo?” Chief Justice Janet DiFiore asked the majority vote.
And I can’t help but wonder what gives chimpanzees and elephants the right to legal protection that goldfish don’t? Is “cognitive complexity” supposed to matter? Or consciousness? The ability to suffer?
And if all animals have the right to sue, well, as one professor Pepperdine put it: “Legal entities cannot eat.”
I don’t claim to know the answers. But human “exclusivity” is just a weak argument. Why do we believe that just because we Can dominate the world around us and mistreat our fellow animals, should we?
For too long, we’ve been comforting our consciences with lukewarm animal welfare laws that make us feel generous and benevolent, instead of acknowledging our moral obligations and recognizing that the other living beings we share the planet with have rights too.