Connecticut Lawsuit Is the First to Claim Elephants as Legal Persons
Yesterday, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a petition on behalf of three elephants being kept at a Connecticut zoo. The suit demands that the court recognize these animals as “legal persons” and release them to sanctuary, but given that the same legal team failed to secure similar personhood rights for chimps in New York, it’s not immediately clear how successful the new effort will be.
The trio of elephants, Beulah, Karen, and Minnie, never asked for legal representation, but the lawyer in charge of the NhRP suit, Steven Wise, argues that they’re legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty, or in the parlance of lawyers, habeas corpus. The three elephants, ranging in age from 45 to 50, were captured as wild animals when they were young and have been used for decades in traveling circuses, fairs, and even birthday parties. The elephants are currently held at Commerford Zoo in Goshen, CT, and should the NhRP win the suit, the animals would be allowed to retire at the Animal Welfare Society’s ARK 2000 natural habitat sanctuary.
According to a NhRP press release, it’s the first-ever nonhuman rights lawsuit filed on behalf of captive elephants. Unlike efforts elsewhere to recognize the “personhood” of corporations, rivers and natural parks, Wise’s team is claiming that the elephants are bona fide persons—that is, living creatures that are actually capable of self-awareness, empathy, and a sense of the passage of time. In the United States, animals are regarded as property, but should a species be granted personhood rights (which hasn’t happened), individual animals would no longer be subject to such things as confinement at zoos and aquatic theme parks, medical experimentation, trafficking, and other hardships. Importantly, it doesn’t mean they’d be allowed to vote or take out a mortgage. Legal persons are deserving of what ethicists and philosophers call “negative rights,” which means they have a right to not be subjected to an action of another person or group.