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An elephant’s personhood on trial: A legal case poses a fundamental question about animals’ rights.

Centuries of legal custom have reserved rights for humans and animal-welfare laws fall short of actual rights. They exempt farm animals and most lab animals, and practices that many people consider cruel, such as gestation crates for pigs, remain legal in many places.

BRANDON KEIM: ‘Forty-seven years ago, the Asian elephant now known as Happy was one of seven calves captured — probably in Thailand — and sent to the United States. She spent five years at a safari park in Florida, time that in the wild would have been spent by her mother’s side. Then she was moved to the Bronx Zoo in New York City. There Happy remains today, and since the death of an elephant companion in 2006, she has lived alone, her days alternating between a 1.15-acre yard and an indoor stall. For a member of a species renowned for both intelligence and sociality, the setting is far from natural…

In considering Happy’s circumstances and what might be done to improve them, should something more than animal-welfare laws and zoo regulations—which the Bronx Zoo has not violated, but arguably are inadequate—be invoked? Should Happy be considered, in legal terms, a person? Which is to say, an entity capable of possessing at least some rights historically reserved for humans alone—beginning with a right to be free? Making that case is an advocacy group called the Nonhuman Rights Project. Since 2013, the group has filed lawsuits on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York and, in neighboring Connecticut, three elephants used in a traveling circus.

They’ve lost those cases, but they have persuaded judges to take them seriously, and in October petitioned a New York state court to order Happy’s release. She wouldn’t be returned to the wild, but would be transferred to a sanctuary in California with more space and the company of other elephants. The hearing took place earlier this month, and while no decision was reached—the case will likely be moved to a court within the Bronx Zoo’s jurisdiction—it was still a unique moment to reflect on the status of animals and the law…

Until recently, the idea of elephant personhood would have struck legal observers as a joke. Just a few decades ago, most states still treated animal cruelty as a misdemeanor, like public intoxication or driving without insurance. But an increasing number of Americans take animal well-being seriously: A 2015 Gallup poll found that a majority “are very or somewhat concerned” about animal mistreatment. The legal system has changed in turn. Every state now considers animal cruelty a felony, and laws such as California’s recently passed Proposition 12, which improves living standards for farm animals, are becoming commonplace.

Still, these laws have blind spots and inconsistencies. The federal Animal Welfare Act exempts farm animals and most lab animals; the Humane Slaughter Act omits poultry. State laws are an inconsistently enforced patchwork, and practices that many people consider cruel—such as gestation crates for pigs—remain legal in many places. Animal-welfare laws fall short of actual rights—and centuries of legal custom have reserved rights for humans. “A thick and impenetrable legal wall has separated all human from all nonhuman animals,” writes Steven Wise, the Nonhuman Rights Project’s founder and lead attorney, in his book Rattling the Cage. To help Happy breach it, Wise invokes both scientific research and legal principle’. SOURCE…

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