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Press release

Lawsuit Seeks Legal Right for Colorado Zoo Elephants

Supported by elephant experts, the case is the first filed by the Nonhuman RIghts Project (NhRP) in the state. It follows the NhRP’s historic case on behalf of Happy the elephant in New York.

June 29, 2023–Colorado Springs, COThe Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has filed a habeas corpus petition in the 4th Judicial District (El Paso County) Court, demanding the right to liberty and release to sanctuary of five elephants held in captivity at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

Elephants Jambo, Kimba, LouLou, Lucky, and Missy were born in the wild in Africa, taken from their herds when they were babies, and imported to the US in the 1970s and 1980s. 

“From the moment their adult family members were likely killed in front of them and they were sold off to be put on display and put to work in circuses and zoos, these elephants’ lives have consisted of one trauma after another,” said NhRP attorney Jake Davis. “We can see this today in the stereotypic behavior, indicative of brain damage and chronic stress, all the elephants have exhibited. Despite its $13.5 million renovation, the simple truth is that the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo cannot meet Jambo, Kimba, LouLou, Lucky, and Missy’s complex physical, social, and emotional needs. No zoo can.”

The first litigation of its kind in Colorado, the NhRP’s petition has the support of world-renowned experts in elephant behavior and cognition. Among those who have submitted declarations is Dr. Bob Jacobs, a former professor of neuroscience at Colorado College who has studied the neurological harm of captivity on elephants. He has personally observed the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo elephants engaging in stereotypic behavior indicative of brain damage from stress and trauma, including rocking, swaying, and head bobbing

“These elephants deserve much better, and keeping them in captivity in this zoo is a sorry reflection on the human condition,” said Dr. Jacobs. “I wouldn’t want to be confined to an austere, barren environment for a week, let alone a lifetime. But that’s what these elephants must endure, leaving them vulnerable to chronic stress and chronic health problems, including deleterious effects to their very sophisticated brains.”

The NhRP is initially asking the 4th Judicial District to issue a writ of habeas corpus, which would require the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to come into court to justify what the NhRP maintains is unlawful imprisonment of the elephants. “Societal norms towards keeping elephants in captivity as well as the legal status of nonhuman animals more generally have changed,” the NhRP writes. “It is time for the common law to evolve to reflect these changes, which do not comport with the elephants’ confinement at CMZ.” The NhRP has secured the world’s first habeas corpus orders on behalf of nonhuman animals in its New York chimpanzee and elephant cases. The Colorado habeas corpus petition requests the elephants’ release to an elephant sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

The NhRP is the only civil rights organization in the US dedicated solely to securing rights for nonhuman animals. Writing in The Atlantic, historian Jill Lepore called the NhRP’s litigation to free Happy the elephant from the Bronx Zoo to a sanctuary “the most important animal-rights case of the 21st century.” That litigation concluded in New York’s highest court last year, with Judges Rowan Wilson and Jenny Rivera issuing landmark dissenting opinions in favor of recognizing the availability of habeas corpus to certain nonhuman animals. Both Happy’s case and the Colorado elephants’ case draw on fundamental principles of justice, liberty, and equality, centuries of case law, and the science of elephant cognition and behavior.

“These elephants are thinking, feeling beings who have been stripped of all control over their lives. We’re looking forward to bringing the fight for nonhuman animal rights to Colorado and giving these elephants a chance to live freely and roam with peace and dignity for the first time in decades,” Davis said.

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