Do Elephants Have Rights? In Landmark Lawsuit, The Nonhuman Rights Project Declare That They Do

Are animals merely property, as they have been largely considered since the time human beings evolved from apes, or do they too have the intrinsic right to bodily liberty and self determination? One animal advocacy group, in a landmark lawsuit filed in Connecticut common law courts, argue that they do, in fact, have such a right.

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has filed the lawsuit on behalf of Beulah, Karen, and Minnie, three elephants currently in the possession of Connecticut’s Commerford Zoo. A writ of habeas corpus has been filed on behalf of the three elephants, who are all between the ages of 36 to 50 years old, and have spent decades giving rides to humans and performing in circuses, with the demand that they be released to The Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in Northern California, one of the two accredited elephant sanctuaries in the U.S. Habeas Corpus is a legal term that declares that a being cannot be held or detained illegally. The Nonhuman Rights Project is a nonprofit organization that uses litigation and public policy advocacy to fight for the rights of animals. According to an NBC News article, the NhRP wants to see Beulah, Karen, and Minnie reclassified from being considered “things,” and therefore mere property, to being granted “personhood.”

animal rights
The Nonhuman Rights Project says elephants do have rights. [Image by David Rutter/Flickr Public Domain/Cropped and Resized]

The NBC News article goes on to say that the R.W. Commerford and Sons Travelling Petting Zoo has been found in violation of the Animal Welfare Act more than 50 times, for things such as failure to provide supervised contact with the elephants and failure to provide adequate veterinary care. The article quotes Steven Wise, The Nonhuman Rights Project founder, about the lawsuit.

“The Nonhuman Rights Project’s lawsuit on behalf of the elephants-Minnie, Beulah, and Karen-marks the first time in the world that a lawsuit has demanded that an elephant’s legal right not to be imprisoned and treated as a thing be recognized.”

Wise goes on to say the NhRP is merely seeking for the elephants to be granted “personhood” at this time, not necessarily the same as possessing the full range of rights and liberties that human beings do, and in this case “the single right of bodily liberty granted by habeas corpus.” He plans to use scientists and experts to argue that elephants are “autonomous beings” with complex emotional and intellectual intelligence, as well as a high level of social organization, and that holding them captive is immoral and should be illegal.

Lauren Choplin, in a piece for the Nonhuman Rights Blog, argues that elephants are extremely complex creatures who use tools, are self aware, mourn their dead, both remember the past and plan for their future, and are capable of showing empathy for other elephants, as well as different animals and human beings. She says that, in accordance with current animal welfare laws, they have no legal rights whatsoever, and can be bought and sold, forced to work or perform, divided and separated from their family units, and otherwise can be made to behave in ways antithetical to their own desires and well being.

Animal rights activists all over the world are pulling for Beulah, Karen, and Minnie and hoping that the decision in Connecticut can lead to an entirely new classification for elephants and other animals. It could very well end up becoming the most important legal decision in the history of human-animal relations.

[Featured Image by David Rutter | Flickr | Public Domain | Cropped and Resized]