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Press release

Lawsuit Seeks Right to Liberty for Honolulu Zoo Elephants 

~ Supported by elephant experts, the case is the first filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) in Hawaii ~

~ The Honolulu Zoo has been named one of the ten worst zoos for elephants in North America four times ~

Nov. 1, 2023—Honolulu, HI—The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has filed a habeas corpus petition in the OʻAHU – First Circuit Court, demanding the right to bodily liberty of two elephants held in captivity at the Honolulu Zoo and their release to an elephant sanctuary.

Elephants Mari and Vaigai were born in the wild in India, taken from their herds when they were young, and imported to the US in 1982 and 1992, respectively. Both were given to the municipally-owned Honolulu Zoo as a gift from the Indian government and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The City and County of Honolulu, Department of Enterprise Services, its Director Dita Holifield, and Honolulu Zoo Director Linda Santos are named as respondents in the lawsuit.

“Elephants, like humans, should have the legal right to liberty,” said NhRP attorney Jake Davis. “Without it, they will continue to be forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands and imprisoned for display in sterile enclosures in foreign countries—which is exactly what Mari and Vaigai have endured.”

The first litigation of its kind in Hawaii, the NhRP’s habeas corpus petition has the support of world-renowned experts in elephant behavior and cognition. Among those who have submitted declarations is conservation biologist Dr. Keith Lindsay, who comments on the elephants’ deplorable living situation: “The life of these two elephants at Honolulu Zoo is nothing but a succession of boring and frustrating days, damaging to their bodies and minds, and punctuated only by interaction with their keepers. Their physical and psychological health has been severely compromised by the sustained deprivation of their autonomy and freedom of movement.”

The NhRP is initially asking the court to issue an order to show cause, which would require the Honolulu Zoo to come into court to justify what the NhRP maintains is unlawful imprisonment of the elephants under the state’s common law of habeas corpus. Were the court to do so, it would not be the first time a state court issued an order to show cause on behalf of a nonhuman animal: the NhRP secured the world’s first such orders on behalf of nonhuman animals in its New York chimpanzee and elephant cases. The Hawaii habeas corpus petition requests Mari and Vaigai’s release to an elephant sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

The Honolulu Zoo has been included on In Defense of Animals’ annual list of the worst zoos for elephants in North America four times (in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2016). In one incident included in IDA’s assessment, Mari and Vaigai were found playing with a used car battery. In 2011, the zoo opposed legislation that would have required it to provide each elephant with at least one acre of space each. The zoo used bullhooks–a tool used to control elephants through pain and fear of the infliction of pain–on the elephants until 2016. 

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 Judge Rowan Wilson and Judge Jenny Rivera issuing landmark dissenting opinions in favor of recognizing the availability of habeas corpus to certain nonhuman animals. Like Happy’s case, the Honolulu elephants’ case draws on fundamental principles of justice, liberty, and equality, centuries of case law, and the science of elephant cognition and behavior.

“Societal norms towards keeping elephants in captivity as well as the legal status of nonhuman animals more generally have changed,” the NhRP writes in its habeas corpus petition. “It is time for the common law to evolve to reflect these changes, which do not comport with the elephants’ imprisonment at the Honolulu Zoo.”  

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