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It’s Time to Recognize Elephants’ Personhood And Rights

By Lauren Choplin

For over 200 years, Americans have held captive members of one of the most cognitively and emotionally complex species on earth: elephants.

In 1796, an elephant named Old Bet was brought from India to the US where she was purchased by Hackaliah Bailey, the founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus, and transported around the country as his circus’s main attraction until she died at age 20, most likely killed by a circus-goer. At the time of her capture, she was two years old and would have spent her days exploring India’s tropical woodlands in close company with other elephants, especially her mother, before growing up to help fend off threats to and take responsibility for the wellbeing of the herd.

Today the life stories of nearly 300 captive elephants in the US and as many as 20,000 worldwide aren’t very different from Old Bet’s and the many other elephants who, facing bullets and bullhooks, have had no choice but to follow in her footsteps.

This is because elephants, like all nonhuman animals, are no less legal “things” than they were two decades after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As elephant advocates have experienced firsthand, elephants’ own interests—in their freedom first and foremost—don’t count in court or in legislation because currently, and against all reason, they lack the capacity for any legal right. Under existing animal welfare laws, we can buy and sell them, deprive them of a social group, physically coerce them into performing for us, transport them around (and into) the country to serve our interests, and put them on display in concrete and steel enclosures that bear no resemblance to their natural habitats.

Thanks in part to long-term scientific study of elephant behavior and social groups, we know a great deal about the kind of beings elephants are: self-aware, autonomous problem-solvers and tool users who have a sense of self, remember the past and plan for the future, show empathy for other beings (not just other elephants), and mourn their dead, among other qualities and capacities. But our legal systems haven’t yet caught up to what we know about them.

On Nov. 13, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed the first-ever petition for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of captive elephants. Our clients are Beulah, Karen, and Minnie, used for decades in traveling circuses and fairs and currently held in captivity by Connecticut’s Commerford Zoo.

Armed with carefully developed legal arguments and affidavits from the world’s preeminent elephant scientists, we are asking Connecticut common law courts to recognize Beulah, Karen, and Minnie’s nonhuman legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty as self-aware, autonomous beings and, as such, order them immediately released to an appropriate sanctuary. The globally respected Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) has already agreed to give them sanctuary upon their release.

Our affiants include:

  • Lucy Bates (Honorary Research Fellow, School of Psychology & Neuroscience, University of St Andrews)
  • Richard Byrne (Research Professor, School of Psychology and Neuroscience, Center for Social Learning & Cognitive Evolution, University of St Andrews)
  • Ed Stewart (President & Co-Founder, Performing Animal Welfare Society)
  • Karen McComb (Professor of Animal Behaviour & Cognition, University of Sussex)
  • Dr. Cynthia Moss, (Program Director and Trustee, Amboseli Trust for Elephants) and
  • Joyce Poole (Co-founder and Co-director, ElephantVoices).

Appended to select affidavits are the experts’ own video ethnography of wild elephants to help reinforce the injustice of depriving our clients of their bodily liberty.

Like Old Bet, Beulah, Karen, and Minnie have spent most of their lives entertaining humans. But their stories don’t have to end as hers did. As potentially the first elephants with legally recognized fundamental rights, they might even enable other elephants to follow in their footsteps—not into a circus tent or zoo enclosure, but to a sanctuary where their capacity and right to live autonomously will be respected and encouraged.

To learn more about the Nonhuman Rights Project’s litigation on behalf of Karen, Beulah, and Minnie, visit their court case page.
To #RumbleForRights for elephants on social media, visit the #RumbleForRights Online Activist toolkit.

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