The Animal Guide for Curious Humans

Why we need legal personhood for animals

March 17, 2022 Maureen Armstrong Season 1 Episode 12
The Animal Guide for Curious Humans
Why we need legal personhood for animals
Show Notes

What are animals exactly?  Are they just things?  Are they property?  Can they be persons even though they aren’t people?   

We share background on an important legal case on the question of whether an elephant is, in legal terms, a person for the purpose of accessing certain legal rights.  This case raises so many important issues regarding the human/non-human animal relationship, the intelligence of elephants in particular, animal ethics, and pathways we need to explore to protect animals in a civilized society.  

The elephant is named Happy.  Born in 1971 in Thailand, she was kidnapped as an infant from her herd.  She along with six other elephant calves were purchased by a drive-through zoo in California. They were named for the seven dwarves from Snow White.  Over the next few years, some died, some were sent to be circus performers, and two, Happy and Grumpy, went to the Bronx Zoo in 1977.  Grumpy died in 2000.  Since 2006, Happy has been confined to an enclosure alone.  

Much been learned about wildlife and elephants since Happy first arrived at the Bronx Zoo. The zoo and its parent organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, have advanced their thinking since that time.  To its credit, the zoo made a decision many years ago not to further acquire elephants.  So, the situation Happy is in won’t be repeated; at least not at the Bronx Zoo.  But what about Happy and the next years of her life?

In October, 2018 the Nonhuman Rights Project, an American not-for-profit organization, filed what is known as a writ of habeas corpus on Happy’s behalf.  They want Happy recognized as a legal person with a fundamental right to bodily liberty.  They want her released to an elephant sanctuary where she could move around and socialize with other elephants.  The zoo has opposed the legal action arguing that elephants are not legal persons who can exercise a right of habeas corpus.  

The case raises important questions about our understanding and treatment of animals, particularly intelligent species like elephants.  We share some of the extraordinary skills and behaviours elephants exhibit and tell how 20 African elephants sensed the death of Lawrence Anthony, a beloved conservationist they had encountered at a reserve in South Africa and how they travelled several miles to his home to pay their respects.  How can the needs of such complex creatures be met if they are confined to a small zoo enclosure?  Isn’t it time we recognize these extraordinary beings as having an inherent right to quality of life?

What do you think? Share your feedback on one of my social media channels with the hashtag #timeforanimalpersonhood and I'll share some of your responses in the next episode.

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