Feb. 16, 2023, Fresno, CA–The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has filed a new habeas corpus petition in a California appellate court, demanding the right to liberty of three elephants held in captivity in the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. With the filing of this petition, the NhRP is taking on a new client, Mabu–a male elephant the zoo recently brought in to use for captive breeding–and asking the Fifth District Court of Appeal to release Amahle, her mother Nolwazi, and Mabu to a sanctuary or a rewilding facility.
“Amahle, Nolwazi, and Mabu’s imprisonment by … the Fresno Zoo is unjust,” the NhRP writes in its petition. “Held in a wholly unnatural environment, deprived of the ability to travel, forage, communicate, socialize, plan, live, choose, and thrive as elephants should—in other words, to be autonomous—they are not living a life that is anything close to acceptable for an elephant.”
Mabu was part of a group of elephants captured in 2003 from eSwatini (then Swaziland) and imported to the US despite global public outcry; he has twice been moved back and forth between the Tucson Reid Park Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to be used for captive breeding. Since 2003 he has fathered 15 elephants, 13 of whom are still alive and held captive in US zoos. 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, also despite global public outcry.
“Captive breeding programs help zoos’ bottom lines, not elephants,” said Jake Davis, the NhRP attorney arguing the elephants’ case. “To the extent Mabu has been used for captive breeding, he’s one of the most exploited elephants in the US zoo system. We look forward to fighting for his freedom and continuing to shine a light on the cruelly diminished lives that elephants imprisoned in zoos across the US are forced to live.”
The Fresno Chaffee Zoo sent one of the NhRP’s original clients, Vusmusi (whose name means “to build a family”) back to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park upon the recommendation of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) after its efforts to use him for breeding were not successful, the zoo told the Fresno Bee in November. The AZA oversees captive breeding in AZA-accredited US zoos. In January of 2023, In Defense of Animals included the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in its 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants Hall of Shame, writing that the zoo is “severing [elephant] bonds to stock [a] tiny electrified exhibit.”
The NhRP’s litigation to free the Fresno elephants is the first of its kind on the West Coast and has the support of world-renowned elephant experts including Dr. Bob Jacobs, who has studied the severe negative impacts of captivity on elephants
“Just as I would not like to be held against my will for my entire life in an impoverished environment,” said Jacobs of his support for the case, “I do not believe elephants should be held in an environment that contributes to chronic stress and chronic health problems, including deleterious effects to their very sophisticated brains. Elephants deserve better.”
In November of 2022, Fresno Superior Court Judge Arlan L. Harrel denied the NhRP’s first petition–filed on behalf of Amahle, Nolwazi, and Vusmusi–on the grounds that the petition doesn’t allege that the elephants are held in state custody. The NhRP makes clear in the petition it filed today why this is legally wrong; under longstanding California law, you don’t have to be in state custody in order to challenge your imprisonment.
The NhRP is requesting that the Court 1) issue a habeas corpus order that would require the Fresno Chaffee Zoo to attempt to justify the elephants’ imprisonment 2) recognize the elephants’ right to liberty under California common law, which is meant to evolve with the times, and 3) order the elephants’ release to a rewilding facility or, if this isn’t possible, an elephant sanctuary.
As the NhRP states in its petition: “The time has come for California common law to reflect the modern understanding that elephants are autonomous and extraordinarily cognitively complex beings.”
In June of 2022, two judges on New York’s highest court issued powerful dissents in support of the right to liberty of the NhRP’s elephant client Happy who is held in captivity in the Bronx Zoo.
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 Amahle, Nolwazi, and Vusmusi to a sanctuary. The zoo declined the NhRP’s offer.
A Change.org petition calling for sanctuary for the Fresno elephants has gained over 30,000 signatures.
Case No./Name: F085722/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.
To download the above photo for use in media coverage, click here (credit: The NhRP). To learn more about our clients, visit their court case timeline.