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Suing for ‘Elephant Rights’

(Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Here we go again. Having failed in its recent attempt to have chimpanzees declared persons, the Nonhuman Rights Project is suing to the Bronx Zoo to have an elephant declared to be entitled to human-type rights. From the New York Post story

The Nonhuman Rights Project announced Tuesday it is filing a suit against the zoo on behalf of the pachyderm, demanding the recognition of her “legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty” as well as her transfer to an elephant sanctuary.

The group argues the elephant — best known as the first elephant to demonstrate self recognition in a mirror — is anything but “Happy” because she’s been isolated in captivity at the Zoo for 12 years, while the highly intelligent mammals are born to live in packs and roam free.

“It doesn’t matter how you imprison them, any normal elephant wouldn’t want to live in the Bronx Zoo,” the Nonhuman Rights Project’s founder and president, Steven Wise, said at a press conference at the zoo Tuesday. “We understand that she has some kind of relationship with her jailers, but that is like you or I being friendly with the prison guards in any jail we were taken to.”

So much to say:

  1. If the zoo’s care of Happy the Elephant is deficient based on relevant animal welfare standards, that should be the basis of any complaint, not creating a legal fiction that animals are persons. Indeed, forcing Happy into an elephant sanctuary would still keep humans in total control of her life, just with different humans making the decisions.
  2. Happy–indeed, every animal–is incapable of exercising rights and cannot comprehend the concomitant responsibilities associated with personhood. Those capacities are simply not in animal natures. In contrast, human beings are intrinsically geared toward exercising rights and assuming duties, of which we are all capable unless temporarily inhibited by immaturity or impeded by some illness or injury. That is a major distinction between human and animal natures.
  3. These cases should be viewed by the courts as frivolous and monetary sanctions imposed against those wasting justice system resources. Until these vexatious litigants pay a substantial price for these stunts, animal rights groups–and their radical counterparts in the “nature rights” movement–will continue to troll the courts looking for that one judge wanting to make radical history.
  4. Don’t think it can’t happen. A New York Court of Appeals judge (NY’s highest court) wrote in a non-binding statement that he supported granting chimps personhood. Two federal courts have stated that animals can have Constitutional standing to bring cases. A court in Argentina declared an orangutan a “non human person,” and granted the ape a writ of habeas corpus. Meanwhile four rivers have also been declared to be rights-bearing entities.
  5. Granting animals “rights” and declaring them “persons” would shatter the principle of human exceptionalism–which, of course, is the point–greatly eroding principles of universal human rights. In such a milieu, an individual’s moral value and rights would depend on their individual capacities of the moment rather than being intrinsic to the human condition.

This is profoundly subversive stuff. State legislatures and the Congress should pass legislation declaring that no nonhuman animal or feature of nature has legal standing in any court or any rights that must be respected at law.

Our care and treatment of animals arise from human duties, not conjuring rights for animals out of ideological zeal. After all, if being human–in and of itself–isn’t what requires us to treat animals humanely, what in the world does?

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