Can Elephants Be Persons?

Sarah Kasbeer in Dissent:

If Happy the elephant were allowed to live a natural life in the wild, she would likely spend her days roaming miles of tropical forest and plucking fruit and leaves from trees with the finger-like tip of her trunk. She would have grown up as part of a complex social system, in which elephant calves are doted on by older siblings, cousins, and aunts. By age forty-seven, Happy would likely have already raised multiple calves of her own. She would trumpet with excitement at the other members of her herd and call to potential mates using infrasonic rumbles that travel long distances, inaudible to the human ear.

But Happy does not do any of this. She currently lives alone at the Bronx Zoo. And recently, she has become the subject of an unusual custody battle that could result in her release. In 2018, an advocacy group called the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed a writ of habeas corpus (Latin for “produce the body”) on Happy’s behalf, and, for the first time, a court heard the case for an elephant’s legal personhood and subsequent right to bodily liberty. Previous habeas petitions by the NhRP, designed to challenge the captivity of chimps, have been unsuccessful. But the arguments have succeeded in furthering the debate around whether animals—especially those proven to have high levels of cognition—should qualify as more than just “things” under the law.

Elephants have a knack for demonstrating that they think, feel, and remember—in a way humans can easily understand. Famous for ritualized expressions of grief, they have been observed covering deceased family members with leaves and dirt, touching their bodies, and even visiting their gravesites.

More here.