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October 24, 2019

Welcome to the Jungle of Nonhuman Rights


By Larry Keane

For the love of Charles Darwin, animal rights activists are at it again.

Lawyers for the Asian elephant “Happy” gave the 47-year-old pachyderm her day in court, alleging the Bronx Zoo is “illegally” detaining the animal because – we can’t make this up – the animal is actually a person. So the question naturally follows… what in the Ace Ventura: Pet Detective are these people thinking?

Turns out, a whole lot more than one might think, and hunters shouldn’t dismiss their antics as just another crackpot clogging up the courts. The elephant’s legal team (that’s right) is led by Steven Wise, the founder and lead attorney of the Nonhuman Rights Project, which argues that elephants are “extraordinarily complex creatures” and should be afforded the same rights as people.

Elephant in the Room

Here’s what’s got Wise’s trunk in knots. He alleges Happy can recognize herself in mirrors and the elephant’s situation is similar to the shameful act of slavery because she’s enclosed in a one-acre enclosure in the Bronx Zoo, the same one featured on the Animal Planet’s The Zoo.” Elephants are herd animals with a defined social structure, but Happy lives alone.  But that’s not because zookeepers are cruel. It’s because two other elephants attacked and killed Happy’s companion, “Grumpy.” Happy was separated from the two aggressive elephants, Maxine and Patty for her own safety. Happy can still interact and touch other elephants, but a barrier exists for her own safety.

Wise, and the Nonhuman Rights Project, says Happy must be released to a California sanctuary, but the judge was skeptical. “Wouldn’t that just be like a larger prison?” asked Bronx supreme court Judge Alison Tuitt. The judge also said she saw a television show where a lemur attacked its own image in a mirror.

“That’s a bit like saying the Earth is a prison,” Wise replied. Wise said if the judge saw the elephant, she would see the elephant is depressed. The judge responded, “Perhaps we will all go see Happy.”

Caging Hunting

This case has larger impacts than just the conservation and studies that happen at zoos. Wise isn’t just trying to break one animal free, he’s trying to usher in a wild world of animal rights that threaten hunters.

Wise bantered with Judge Tuitt about dog’s “personhood” rights too. He’s argued that breeding dogs have “bodily rights,” and breeding them would be illegal. Under that theory, using hunting dogs would constitute animal slavery. Harvesting game would be tantamount to murder.

It might sound far-fetched, but this isn’t thoughtless humor. Wise has tried this before and failed. He argued two chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, were illegally detained for the same reasons as Happy the elephant. In 2017, a New York appeals court rejected that argument. Just a couple months ago, a Connecticut appeals court denied Wise’s arguments in a similar case for three elephants at that state’s Litchfield Zoo. Wise pointed out, though, where he’s failed, others have gained traction. A New Zealand river was granted human rights in 2017 and a Colombian court granted “personhood” to part of the Amazon rain forest.

However, Wise has yet to answer questions over legal consequences, under his theory, of when one wild animal takes another, which is the natural order. It should follow that we could expect Wise to sue the lion for wrongful death, loss of life and murder of the wildebeest.

Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project will be back in front of the judge in January, trying to turn our zoos into a thing of the past and our courts into zoos.

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