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Do Elephants Qualify for ‘Personhood?’
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Zoo elephant

Summary: An animal rights group is suing for elephants being kept at the Connecticut Zoo to receive legal personhood.

An animal rights group is fighting for the elephants kept at the Connecticut Zoo. The group has sued, seeking legal personhood for the elephants.


Founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), Steven Wise, said, “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 believes that animals like elephants have complex cognitive and social abilities, thus should not be treated as things since being a “thing” because it means they “lack the capacity for any kind of legal rights.” The elephants need to be given the status of “personhood,” although Wise stressed that receiving personhood is not the same as receiving the same level of rights that humans have. He explained, “The only thing we’re seeing is the single right of bodily liberty that is protected by habeas corpus.”

The groups want the elephants moved to a sanctuary from the R.W. Commerford and Sons Traveling Petting Zoo in Connecticut largely because the traveling zoo has been found in violation of meeting the minimum standards of the Animal Welfare Act over 50 times. The violations include failure to have an employee present when the public is in contact with the elephants, failure to provide adequate veterinary care for the excessive accumulation of necrotic skin on the elephants’ heads, and failure to adequately drain the elephant enclosure.

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The elephants in question range in age from 36 to 50 and were all born in the wild. Wise said, “It is simply immoral and it ought to be illegal to imprison an autonomous being against their will without due process.” Wise plans to rely on testimony from experts and scientists on the complex cognitive abilities and social structures of the “autonomous beings.”

The group has a small chance of succeeding, seeing that they filed a similar case in the past year seeking personhood for two chimpanzees but were denied the request. The chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, live in New York but their case is under appeal. Even with that bump in the road, Wise knows that cases in other places of the world show that things are improving. A case last November in Argentina involved a chimpanzee named Cecilia. In this case, the judge ruled that Cecilia was a “nonhuman legal person” that had “inherent rights.”

Wise will also use the pet trust statute that allows animals in New York and Connecticut to be named beneficiaries of a trust as an argument that animals are given legal rights. He added, “We’re looking for a second legal right.”

A law was passed in Connecticut last year that allows advocates for dogs and cats to be appointed in cases of cruelty, neglect, and abuse. Professor of law Jessica Rubin at the University of Connecticut said, “That allows courts to tap volunteer students or lawyers to act as advocates for justice in cases involving the abuse of dogs or cats and this legislation is aimed to support more vigorous enforcement of our existing anti-cruelty laws.”

Rubin wants to see the courts side the NhRP and an increase of public awareness of animal rights and capabilities. She added, “I think things are changing and that change is supported by science and increasing data about cognition and emotion and our shifting morals and tolerance of abuse of other beings.”

Do you think animals should have the same rights as humans? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

To learn more ‘personhood’ lawsuits, read these articles:




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