Elephants in the courtroom: Cases involving gentle giants’ liberty and other animal rights issues

Elephants in the courtroom: Cases involving gentle giants’ liberty and other animal rights issues

Elephants are large, majestic creatures that have been known to grace the pages of history for their intelligence and strength. It's not every day that you hear about elephants being discussed in the courthouse, but the following cases are anything but ordinary. From liberty rights to animal cruelty, here are some of the most interesting legal cases involving these gentle giants.

Happy the unhappy elephant

The case involving Happy the Asian elephant is not a happy one.

Nonhuman Rights Project (NRP), an animal advocacy group, argued that Happy was being illegally kept at the Bronx Zoo and should be transferred to the wild where she rightfully belongs. The conflict was about whether habeas corpus, the fundamental legal concept of individual freedom, applies to emotionally complex and intelligent animals like elephants. In June 2014, the New York Court of Appeals ruled against it.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said, "Habeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained, not nonhuman animals."

But with Judge DiFiore’s recent resignation, things could take a happier turn for Happy and the animal rights group, which filed a motion in July to reargue her case. There have been other cases similar to Happy’s, but what makes hers special is that it seems to be the first case of its kind to reach a high court. This could only mean that the debate over whether highly intelligent animals like elephants should share similar rights as people is not over.

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The circus elephants that deserve better caretakers than a bunch of clowns

Meanwhile, there is no debate about whether animals have rights against cruelty. Animal cruelty laws are more straightforward than laws pertaining to whether animals should have the same right as humans, which requires a more nuanced discussion. And zoos ought to stay abreast of these discussions.

Incidentally, it’s not just zoos that tend to cross the line from animal caretakers to animal abusers; elephant sanctuaries and circus operations are often guilty, too. Case in point: Carson & Barnes Circus. Many circuses notoriously feature wild animals like elephants in their various attractions, and Carson & Barnes is one of the few that have been cited for numerous violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

One of the circus’s infractions includes an animal abuse case in which elephants were prodded and beaten with bullhooks to train them for shows. The company had to pay the US Department of Agriculture $16,000 in civil penalties for its poor record of treating elephants, which include instances of elephants escaping and damaging property.

Although elephants are deemed intelligent, they’re not all capable of learning “tricks” that humans teach them, such as posing for a selfie and enduring long trips in the jungle while carrying several humans on their backs. Humans are undoubtedly the more intelligent animals, but circuses that may or may not be run by clowns are not the best entity to entrust the care of elephants.

The not-so-gentle giant

Though they are called gentle giants, elephants are humongous creatures that can easily injure or kill a human being. Anyone who wishes to see these giants should take great precaution when approaching these tender tuskers up close.

In March 2021, Jose Navarette took his two-year-old daughter to the San Diego Zoo, which was undoubtedly nice of him. What wasn’t so nice was taking the child to an elephant enclosure, a high-risk area where no person should be, much less a toddler.

It would have been difficult for Mr. Navarette to claim that he meant well or that it was an accident, in order to absolve himself, as his act was caught on camera. In one of the videos, he was shown running away from a charging elephant, climbing out of the enclosure’s barricade, dropping his daughter, and picking her up just on time to escape the elephant.

Mr. Navarette is probably a person who always has the right intentions but somehow manages to get into trouble for his efforts. For instance, when charged with child endangerment charges, he pleaded guilty. But he didn’t show up for sentencing. He may have escaped the charging elephant, but it’s unlikely he’ll escape possible sanctions, including a six-year prison sentence, an order to attend child abuse classes, and a misdemeanor in child abuse charge.

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