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I’m writing today to reflect on the present moment and provide updates on some of the incredible work happening at the Nonhuman Rights Project right now.

The last few weeks have been difficult for us as we adjust to carrying on the mission without our founder, Steve. Steve was an extraordinary combination of visionary and executive: he saw something deeply wrong in the world and did something about it by building the NhRP. Under Steve’s leadership, we took the cause of nonhuman rights from one that nobody was even thinking about to one that sparked a global discussion about the need to change animals’ legal status from things with no rights to persons with fundamental rights. We’ve had historic animal rights hearings and persuaded two justices on New York’shighest court to speak out in powerful dissents that will support the movement for decades to come. We’ve developed and helped pass the first animal rights law in the US. Our opponents are so rattled by swelling support that they’re now trying to enact unconstitutional anti-rights legislation–i.e. Utah’s HB 249–that would prevent any facet of state government from ever recognizing any legal rights for nonhuman animals and other nonhuman entities.

What are we doing to meet this moment?

As we energize our movement we’re seeing both an increase in opposition and opportunity. One of Steve’s greatest accomplishments was bringing together passionate supporters like you and tenacious advocates like my colleagues at the NhRP to build on this momentum. And I’m confident historians will one day look back at today as a time where we did just that.

Presently, we’re litigating three different petitions that are on or headed toward appeal. Appellate litigation is a labor-intensive affair involving exhaustive research, discussion, writing, editing, and preparation. This is especially true for litigation such as ours that raises important and novel questions of law.

In Colorado, the NhRP’s case on behalf of Jambo, Kimba, LouLou, Lucky, and Missy–five female African elephants confined at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo–is now heading to the Colorado Supreme Court. After extensive briefing and consideration, District Court Judge Eric Bentley granted the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s motion to dismiss the case. Judge Bentley assumed that “[e]lephants are autonomous and extraordinarily cognitively complex and social beings” that “cannot function normally in captivity[.]” He nonetheless found that nonhuman animals have no right to habeas relief “no matter how cognitively, psychologically, or socially sophisticated they may be.” In so doing, he honestly acknowledged the “reality” of a double standard “based on nothing more than biological prejudice.”

This reasoning embraces injustice. One being who possesses extraordinary cognitive capacities such as autonomy, empathy, self-awareness, theory of mind, and long-term memory can be kept in captivity where they cannot function normally. Meanwhile, another being with the same cognitive abilities enjoys a right to bodily liberty. The key difference between the two is a fork in their biological ancestry: one is an elephant while the other is a human.

In Colorado, writs of habeas corpus skip the intermediate court of appeals and go straight to the Colorado Supreme Court. That is where Jambo, Kimba, LouLou, Lucky, and Missy’s case is now pending as we draft their opening brief for the highest court in Colorado.

In Michigan, we petitioned for writs of habeas corpus on behalf of Louie and six other chimpanzees imprisoned at the DeYoung Family Zoo. As we developed the case we hoped to file on behalf of Tommy–NhRP’s first client–but we learned that Tommy died shortly before filing the petition. Judge Mary Barglind of the 41st Circuit Court denied the petition on the basis that chimpanzees are not persons. We are now drafting the opening brief before Michigan Court of Appeals.

In Hawaii, O’ahu First Circuit Court Judge Gary W.B. Chang indicated at the end of a 45 minute hearing that he would dismiss our habeas petition on behalf of Mari and Vaigai–two Asian elephants held captive at the Honolulu Zoo. We are still awaiting a final judgment so that we can officially take Mari and Vaigai’s case to the Intermediate Court of Appeals.

It is disappointing when a judge rules against us but it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees. If what we were doing was easy then it would have already been done by now. The only way a court will recognize legal rights for animals is if somebody asks a court to recognize legal rights for animals. Our cases on behalf of Jambo, Kimba, LouLou, Lucky, Missy, Mari, Vaigai, and the DeYoung Prisoners do exactly that.

These three cases are just our active litigation but there is so much more that we are working on right now to advance what Steve started: developing our next habeas case, developing a strategic response to the anti-rights legislation, building support for our legislative agenda, engaging in strategic planning, and, as always, talking about our work with as many people in as many ways as we can to inject as much energy into this movement as is possible.

Undoing millennia of institutionalized injustice is not easy and it will not happen overnight. We must be smart, professional, and tenacious. Every case, every conversation, and every intervention will keep this momentum going. We will succeed because we have to succeed.

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