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Court Rules Elephant Does Not Have Rights

Wesley J. Smith
Photo credit: Coralie Mercier, via Flickr (cropped).

I have written here several times about the attempt by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NHRP) to “break the species barrier” by having animals declared “persons” entitled to enforceable rights. The first cases involved chimps. The latest attempt involved Happy the elephant, a denizen of the Bronx Zoo.

The case should have been tossed out of court and the NHRP sanctioned for filing a frivolous case. But we live in surreal times, so a case seeking a writ of habeas corpus for an elephant made it to New York’s highest court.

Happily, Happy is not akin to a human being under New York law. From the ruling (citations omitted):

The great writ protects the right to liberty of humans because they are humans with certain fundamental liberty rights recognized by law. Nonhuman animals are not, and never have been, considered “persons” with a right to “liberty” under New York law

The majority’s logic is impeccable:

Significantly, courts have consistently determined that rights and responsibilities associated with legal personhood cannot be bestowed on nonhuman animals. As these courts have aptly observed, legal personhood is often connected with the capacity, not just to benefit from the provision of legal rights, but also to assume legal duties and social responsibilities. Unlike the human species, which has the capacity to accept social responsibilities and legal duties, nonhuman animals cannot — neither individually nor collectively — be held legally accountable or required to fulfill obligations imposed by law.

The court also makes short work of the usual deflection by animal-rights activists that, because corporations have rights, animals should too:

Nor does any recognition of corporate and partnership entities as legal “persons” lend support to petitioner’s claim. Corporations are simply legal constructs through which human beings act and corporate entities, unlike nonhuman animals, bear legal duties in exchange for legal rights.

Moral by Nature

Exactly! And don’t give me the baloney that since some humans are unable to assume duties, animals should have rights too. We, unlike them, are a moral species by nature. That is an inherent human trait that no animal possesses. Which is why no animal can ever be convicted of a crime, as the ruling noted.

Yes, certain individuals may not be able to exercise that human attribute because of impediments caused by immaturity, illness, or injury, but that does not subtract from their intrinsic humanity or their entitlement to rights as human beings. Otherwise, we would have to earn our status — which would be the kiss of death for universal human rights.

Breaking the Species Barrier

The Court also noted the adverse impact that breaking the species barrier would have:

A determination that Happy, an elephant, may invoke habeas corpus to challenge her confinement at the Bronx Zoo — a confinement both authorized and, by all indications, compliant with state and federal statutory law and regulations — would have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society. It is not this Court’s role to make such a determination.

Everything above should be axiomatic. But two judges dissented, for a 5–2 ruling. Their reasoning compares the history of the law as applied for women, children, and slaves with animals — a typical example of animal-rights sophistry:

Most fundamentally, the writ was used to grant freedom to slaves, who were considered chattel with no legal rights or existence. Indeed, the various rights held by animals today [misnomer alert for animal-welfare laws] . . . are far greater than those held by enslaved persons in England or America, who had none.

Similarly, the writ was used to grant freedom to wives and children, who, though not chattel, had few or no legal rights and legally were under the dominion of husbands and fathers. They, too, had rights that paled in comparison to those held by animals today. . . . Not only does the history of the writ’s usage destroy the foundations of the majority’s contention, it shows how the writ was used by enlightened judges to nudge advances in the law.

Right. For humans! The comparison of those formerly oppressed human beings —  inherent equals — with animals is misanthropic and offensive.

Bottom line: It should have been 7–0, but I am most pleased by the outcome. The ruling is clear and persuasive, and it should offer a compelling precedent the next time — and there will be one — the Nonhuman Rights Project or another animal-rights group contends in court that animals are people too.

Cross-posted at The Corner.