A group of lawyers asked a Connecticut court on Monday to grant three traveling and working elephants “legal personhood,” a status that would set these intelligent creatures free.
The lawyers, of the Nonhuman Rights Project organization, previously attempted to get courts in New York to recognize chimpanzees as persons, but couldn’t sway the judges to accept that some intelligent animals should be given the same rights to free will as humans. Now, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a petition of habeas corpus — a report of an unlawful imprisonment — for three elephants working at the traveling Commerford Zoo, based in Connecticut.
To these lawyers, elephants, like chimpanzees, should have a right to ‘practical autonomy,’ because they’re self-aware, anticipate the future, and engage in sophisticated cultural practices like grieving. Accordingly, denying these creatures self-determination is disputing that they’re scientifically proven to be cognitively sophisticated beings.
“We’re trying to force the legal system to accept science,” Kevin Schneider, the Nonhuman Rights Project’s executive director and attorney, told Mashable. “It’s like denying climate science or evolution. It’s denying that their autonomy matters as much to them as it does to us.”
The lawyers said they picked Commerford Zoo because — not only are the elephants there working and traveling — but the zoo is based is Connecticut, a place they believe has favorable habeas corpus laws.
Although there’s no clear legal route to setting the Commerford Zoos’ three elephants — Minnie, Beulah, and Karen — free, Schneider and his legal team have chosen to argue that elephants are advanced enough to be viewed as autonomous, free beings — like people.
“We have to make arguments that resonate within the legal system,” said Schneider. “We can’t just say elephants are awesome.”
They might love them, but that’s not the point. They shouldn’t have the right to own them.
In response to the petition, the Commerford Zoo’s owner, Tim Commerford, told The Washington Post, “They’re part of our family.” Additionally, the company’s site states the animals “are well taken care of and we have strict rules about when and how they work.”
Schneider isn’t swayed by this defense.
“If you can imagine that you have a nice cousin that you say you treat well and keep chained up — if that’s how you treat family, that’s pretty bizarre,” he said.
Even if the Commerford’s truly care for their money-making elephants, which get rented for parties and other amusements, Schneider says the animals are still being denied their free will.
“They might love them, but that’s not the point. They shouldn’t have the right to own them,” explained Schneider.
Schneider admits the legal battle ahead will be long. If his organization loses, they’ll appeal. And if the Commerford’s lose, they’ll probably appeal too. But the Nonhuman Rights Projects appears ready to fight for the elephants’ autonomy.
“It’s really about having a will,” said Schneider. “And when you have a will you can suffer tremendously when you’re deprived of your will. These are intensely social beings — it’s really like having a prisoner in a solitary confinement in lots of these scenarios.”
The end game is to get through an arduous legal battle and set the animals free to a sanctuary, at no cost to the Commerford Zoo (other than the loss of their animals, of course.) Specifically, the three elephants would be sent to a sanctuary run by the Performing Animal Welfare Society in San Andreas, Calif.
“It’s not the wild, what they should have, but it’s a hell of a lot better. They’re given space and autonomy,” said Schneider.