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Press release

Statement on Denial of California Habeas Corpus Petition

On Dec. 13, 2023, the California Supreme Court denied the habeas corpus petition the Nonhuman Rights Project filed in August on behalf of three elephants held captive in the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Below is the NhRP’s statement.

Anyone who cares about protecting elephants or autonomy should be disappointed that the state’s highest court has dismissed Amahle, Nolwazi, and Mabu’s habeas corpus petition without allowing the merits to be litigated. The evidence on the record in this case is irrefutable that Amahle, Nolwazi and Mabu are suffering immense physical and psychological harm from the loss of their freedom in the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Twenty-first century judges must have the courage to address this suffering and the tremendous injustice of elephant captivity, which is made legally possible by elephants’ rightlessness.

While this Court’s order is final, it should not be viewed as an exoneration of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, and neither the Fresno Chaffee Zoo nor any other California zoo should be breathing a sigh of relief. In court and beyond, on behalf of all nineteen elephants held captive in zoos throughout the state, we intend to fight for as long as it takes to end elephant imprisonment and secure elephants’ right to liberty. 

Additional Background:

Nolwazi and Amahle were among 17 elephants, most of them breeding-age females, who were taken from their natural habitat in Eswatini in 2016 and imported to US zoos despite global public outcry. Mabu was part of a group of wild-born African elephants captured in 2003 and imported to the US, also despite global public outcry.

In August, the NhRP filed a petition for a common law writ of habeas corpus in the California Supreme Court, arguing that elephants Nolwazi, Amahle, and Mabu are entitled to a hearing to determine whether they must be released from their unjust imprisonment in the Fresno Chaffee Zoo.

The filing followed a Fresno Chaffee Zoo announcement that Nolwazi and her daughter Amahle are pregnant; Mabu is the father for both.

In May, the Fifth District Court of Appeal denied Amahle, Nolwazi, and Mabu’s original habeas petition.

In November of 2022, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo moved a male elephant named Vusmusi back to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park after their efforts to use him for captive breeding were unsuccessful. Vusmusi was thus transferred out of the jurisdiction of this lawsuit. The NhRP added Mabu as a client in February of 2023.

In August of 2022, the NhRP sent a letter to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, offering to withdraw the lawsuit if the zoo agreed to release the elephants to a sanctuary. The zoo declined the NhRP’s offer.

A petition calling for the Fresno elephants’’ release to a sanctuary has garnered over 41,000 signatures.

Case No./Name: S281614/NONHUMAN RIGHTS PROJECT, INC., on behalf of Amahle, Nolwazi, and Mabu, individuals, Petitioner, v. FRESNO’S CHAFFEE ZOO CORPORATION, and JON FORREST DOHLIN, in his official capacity as Chief Executive Officer & Zoo Director of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Respondents.

For the elephants’ biographies, details on the Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s elephant exhibit, and a complete court case timeline, visit Amahle, Nolwazi, and Mabu’s client page. For photos and video of the elephants, visit this Google Drive folder.

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