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Press release

Civil rights group seeks hearing in California’s highest court on behalf of Fresno Chaffee Zoo elephants

Aug. 29, 2023, San Francisco, CA–Today the Nonhuman Rights Project (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 follows a recent Fresno Chaffee Zoo announcement that Nolwazi and her daughter Amahle are pregnant; Mabu is the father for both. “This news is nothing to celebrate. It’s sickening and wrong. Nothing about these pregnancies is natural, and they are yet another egregious example of how Mabu, Nolwazi, and Amahle have no control over their lives,” the NhRP wrote in a statement.

Supported by renowned elephant cognition and behavior experts, the NhRP’s habeas petition seeks a hearing regarding the elephants’ imprisonment and, ultimately, judicial recognition that they possess the right to liberty, whose violation requires their release to a sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. The NhRP has secured the world’s first habeas hearings on behalf of nonhuman animals in its New York chimpanzee and elephant rights cases. 

In November of 2022, the Fresno Superior Court denied the NhRP’s petition on the grounds that the NhRP didn’t allege, as the Court believed it must, that the elephants are held in state custody (due to, for example, a prison sentence imposed by a court). In its filing today, the NhRP is also asking the California Supreme Court to reject this order and clarify that an individual doesn’t need to be in state custody in order to meet habeas corpus jurisdictional requirements. 

“The injustice of keeping a self-aware, autonomous being like an elephant in captivity is prolonged every day the California courts refuse to grant Amahle, Nolwazi, and Mabu a hearing, which is what the lower courts have done so far,” said NhRP attorney Jake Davis. “The evidence is irrefutable that these elephants are suffering immense physical and psychological harm from the loss of their freedom, and we believe the time is now for California’s highest court to weigh in on the pressing legal issue of nonhuman rights.”

In May of 2022, New York’s highest court heard a similar case brought by the NhRP on behalf of Happy, an elephant held alone in captivity in the Bronx Zoo. The New York Court of Appeals ultimately denied the NhRP’s petition, but now Chief Judge Rowan D. Wilson and Judge Jenny Rivera wrote powerful dissents, agreeing with the NhRP that Happy’s imprisonment is unjust and can be remedied through habeas corpus. Not doing so simply because it has never been done before “is an argument against all progress, one that flies in the face of legal history,” Judge Wilson wrote. 

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

The NhRP expects to receive amicus support in the coming weeks. There is no date by which the Court must rule on the NhRP’s petition. 

Additional Background:

In May, the Fifth District Court of Appeal denied Amahle, Nolwazi, and Mabu’s 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 38,000 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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