The Corner

Science & Tech

Pushing Elephant ‘Personhood’

Elephants graze at the Amboseli National Park, Kenya, August 11, 2020. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Animal rights must always be distinguished from animal welfare. The former is an ideology that creates moral equality between us and fauna. In this view, human beings have no more right to own animals than we do people.

Animal welfare arises out of human exceptionalism. It accepts the unique value of human beings and the moral propriety of owning animals. But it also comprehends our duty to treat animals humanely, the definition of which will depend on the capacities and characteristics of each animal, and which is always subject to improvement and change.

The greatest immediate threat the animal-rights movement poses to society is known as “animal standing,” that is, allowing animals to go to court to bring lawsuits. Of course, the animal litigants would be oblivious. Animal standing is designed to unleash the very well-funded animal-rights legal community to sue and sue and sue.

Think cattle herds suing ranchers or lab animals suing universities — not to improve care but to liberate from all human use. It could bring many activities that involve the instrumental use of animals to a halt.

The Nonhuman Rights Project is leading this charge. Currently, it is seeking a writ of habeas corpus to release an elephant kept at the Bronx Zoo. The argument isn’t based on the pachyderm’s welfare but rather its supposed “personhood.”

The case was argued in an appeals court recently. Note the circular argument. From the Times Union story:

Appellate Justice Peter Moulton told Wise his argument “doesn’t answer the question of why a paradigm that was created for one species could possibly apply to another one.” Moulton noted the word “person” appears in the statute for a habeas corpus writ, a legal demand for a prisoner to be produced so a court can determine if imprisonment is lawful.

[Stephen] Wise said the issue is not whether Happy is a person but if she has the right to liberty protected by habeas corpus. If so, he said, she is automatically a person, legally speaking.

The story reports that the judges were skeptical. Let us hope so.

But don’t say, “It can never happen here.” In a previous unsuccessful lawsuit involving chimps, a judge in New York’s highest court indicated he would declare chimpanzees to be legal persons and grant them habeas-corpus relief in their own name.

Moreover, a court in Argentina ruled that an orangutan was a “nonhuman person,” granted a writ of habeas corpus, and ordered the animal released from a zoo and placed in a Florida sanctuary.

It only takes one judge wanting to make history to put animal standing on the map. The Nonhuman Rights Project and other animal-rights groups are actively searching for that one judge.