Sept. 27, 2023, Ojai, CA–Last night the Ojai City Council made legal history by becoming the first city in the US to recognize the legal right of a nonhuman animal.
Introduced by Council Member Leslie Rule (District 1) and developed with and supported by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), the ordinance defines and protects elephants’ right to liberty.
“This legislation is historic,” said Courtney Fern, the NhRP’s Director of Government Relations and Campaigns. “It’s indisputable that elephants suffer when deprived of their freedom and that animal welfare laws can’t end their suffering. For elephants and the nonhuman animal rights movement, we are proud to support this first-of-its-kind ordinance, and we commend the Ojai City Council for standing up for what is necessary and just.”
In the early 1980s, an elephant named Tarra was held in captivity in Ojai Valley and used for entertainment, including in an act where she was made to rollerskate. In 1995, Tarra became the first resident of what is now the largest elephant sanctuary in the US. Under this ordinance, which passed by a vote of 4-1, it is now illegal in Ojai to subject an elephant to the lack of freedom Tarra endured.
“In honor of Tarra, the 19 elephants suffering in captivity across California, and the hundreds of elephants suffering in captivity across the US, we’re proud to take a stand for these beings, who are like us in so many important ways,” Rule said.
The passage of the ordinance comes as California’s highest court is poised to rule on a habeas petition filed by the NhRP that seeks recognition of the right to liberty and release to a sanctuary of three elephants held captive and used for breeding in the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Last year, two judges on New York’s highest court issued historic dissents in the NhRP’s elephant rights case to free an elephant named Happy from the Bronx Zoo.
Scientific studies by elephant cognition and behavior experts have shown that elephants are cognitively, emotionally, and socially complex beings who suffer when confined in small environments. In captivity, elephants experience painful physical ailments, including arthritis and joint issues from standing on hard, unnatural surfaces, as well as emotional trauma and brain damage from being unable to roam freely and interact with other elephants as they would in their vastly larger natural habitats.
“Ojai is a community that cares deeply about animals, and we believe the time has come to look beyond animal welfare laws,” said Ojai Mayor Pro Tem and Council Member Suza Francina (District 4). “We’re proud to be the first city in the country to grant elephants the fundamental right to bodily liberty.”
“We have known for some time that elephants have strong empathetic responses to one another’s condition,” said Mark Scott, Interim City Manager of Ojai. “I am glad that we are able to make this statement supporting the place of these noble creatures in our world.”
“With this ordinance, Ojai becomes the first city in California and nationwide to affirmatively protect the bodily liberty rights of elephants,” said City Attorney Matthew T. Summers. “Hopefully, others will follow suit too.”
The NhRP looks forward to working with other cities in California and across the country to pass similar legislation.
“A sustainable and just future for all life on earth means extending compassion to and establishing legal rights for nonhuman animals,” said Fern. “In legislatures, in courtrooms, and beyond, that’s what this movement is about.”