Elephants remember everything. But, do they possess the traits required for personhood or is such an argument frivolous? According to author Mary Anne Warren, American writer and philosophy professor, in order to qualify for personhood, a being must possess consciousness, reasoning, self-motivated activity, the capacity to communicate, and self-awareness.
In November, The Nonhuman Rights Project sued on behalf of three elephants at W. Commerford and Sons Traveling Petting Zoo in Connecticut, stating the elephants should be granted personhood. The three female elephants, Asians Beulah, 48, Minnie, 46, and African Karen, 34, were all born in the wild, but have been with the zoo since they were four years old. The case was the first of its kind in the United States.
“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,” said Steven Wise, founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project.
The group argued that elephants “have a sense of self, remember the past and plan for the future, engage in complex communication, show empathy, and mourn their dead.” Therefore, they should be granted personhood and freed to a natural habitat sanctuary. They also cited violations to support their case, including failure to have an employee present during periods when the public is in contact with the elephants, failure to provide adequate veterinary care, and inadequate drainage of an elephant enclosure.
The group pointed out that, “‘Person’ is not a synonym for ‘human being,’ but designates an entity with the capacity for legal rights, “ and certain beings and entities that are not human have previously qualified for personhood. They were not seeking full human rights, rather, “The only thing we’re seeking is the single right of bodily liberty that is protected by habeas corpus,” Wise said.
Jessica Rubin, a professor of law at the University of Connecticut, was hopeful that the court would side with the group and said she felt the battle was indicative of the increase of public awareness of animal rights and capabilities. “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,” Rubin said.
However, the court did not feel the argument was sufficient. In fact, Superior Court Judge James Bentivegna, nominated by Governor John R. Rowland, called the petition “wholly frivolous on its face in legal terms.” He added that The Nonhuman Rights Project did not have a prior relationship with the elephants, and thus, should not have been able to bring the petition.
“We’re happy with the decision,” zoo co-owner Darlene Commerford said. “It was a frivolous case.”
Wise issued the following statement, “The Superior Court gave two grounds for its dismissal. The first was the NhRP lacked standing…The second ground for dismissal was that the Superior Court found the lawsuit to be frivolous because no one had ever brought such a case before in Connecticut…That said we are studying the decision and will likely either seek to amend our habeas corpus petition to add a sentence stating that Minnie, Karen, and Beulah have no significant relationships with anyone able to file a habeas corpus action against their captors or we will refile our lawsuit so that our petition includes this sentence. Should we be unsuccessful we will, of course, appeal.”