Elephants are not people. It may seem obvious, but the recent Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. R.W. Commerford & Sons, Inc. (Conn. App. Ct. 2019) argued that three elephants were denied a writ of habeas corpus when they were imprisoned (presumably) against their will in a Connecticut zoo. The court refused to rule on the case on jurisdictional grounds, maintaining that elephants are not people and thus not entitled to habeas corpus protection. A lower Connecticut court had already ruled that habeas corpus did not apply to elephants. The lower court judge refused to elaborate on the issues in the case, stating simply and non-ambiguously, “THE PETITION IS WHOLLY FRIVOLOUS ON ITS FACE.”
However, the issue of whether an elephant is a person is not as simple as it may seem. In the notes of the “Nonhuman Rights Project” case, the court panel explains that “Black’s Law Dictionary” defines “person” as “[a] human being,” “[t]he living body of a human being,” or as “[a]n entity (such as a corporation) that is recognized by law as having most of the rights and duties of a human being.” and that “the words ‘person’ and ‘another’ may extend and be applied to communities, companies, corporations, public or private, limited liability companies, societies, and associations.” So, corporations can be “persons”, but elephants cannot.
The court went on to explain in the court notes that although animals are not people (and are thus not afforded rights like habeas corpus), others (people and organizations) can advocate for their human treatment, whether they live in the wild or captivity. However, they defined those advocates narrowly, such as caregiver, guardian or someone else with a relationship with the animals. Steven Wise and his Nonhuman Rights Project have no such relationship with the Connecticut elephants, the mini elephant bio on the website notwithstanding.
This discussion is not likely to go away anytime soon. The Nonhuman Rights Project has deep pockets and a stylish website devoted to promoting awareness of their campaign and raising funds for court cases like the recent one in the Connecticut Appellate Court.