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Happy’s standing

Elephants are magnificent, but they aren’t “persons”


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Who doesn’t love elephants? By all accounts, they are both loveable and exceptional. Elephants form matriarchal communities with strong emotional bonds. They caress their babies and remember slaughtered relatives, even returning to the scene of death to commemorate the bones. They conduct birth and death ceremonies. An elephant can recognize itself in a mirror, produce abstract paintings, and communicate through voice and vibration. A full-grown bull can carry a tree trunk and pick up a pencil.

These remarkable creatures have been hunted, exploited, and mistreated through the centuries by humans, but now they are coming into their own. Once the star attraction of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus (recall every circus poster you’ve ever seen), the venerable Greatest Show on Earth announced six years ago it would no longer feature elephant acts.

African and Indian game wardens are cracking down on ivory hunters, and elephant preserves are popping up like retirement homes. These may all be examples of good stewardship, but the NonHuman Rights Project scoffs at such half-measures.

The group’s latest high-profile action was a writ of habeas corpus against the Bronx Zoo on behalf of Happy, a 50-year-old female elephant. They contended that Happy was not happy in confinement and demanded that she be moved to an elephant sanctuary.

Would a rabbit have legal standing to sue the fox who ate her mate?

Happy won’t choose the sanctuary; the NRP will. Happy did not argue her own case; they did. Nevertheless, they insisted on Happy’s standing as a “person” under law, and argued she is entitled to the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as any human. The New York Court of Appeals didn’t buy it, reasonably citing the obvious conclusion that granting personhood to Happy would undermine the principle of human ownership. Not to mention the principle of human exceptionalism.

The decision was not unanimous though; two judges out of seven dissented on the grounds that Happy was confined in an unnatural environment and deserves her freedom as much as any human. Encouraged, the NonHuman Rights Project is laying groundwork for further cases.

Their long-term goal is precisely what the Court of Appeals feared: to establish “animal standing,” or recognition of animals as legal persons under law, with the right to sue their owners—eventually to do away with ownership altogether.

Farcical as it seems, if South American countries can grant humanish rights to geographical features (“Old ‘Legal Person’ River,” May 26, 2018), animal standing may not be far off.

Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher known for his permissive views on infanticide, created a philosophical framework for animal standing in the 1970s.

Singer’s definition of personhood begins with self-consciousness: if a being is aware of itself, it should be able to claim basic rights. A grown dog is self-aware, unlike a 3-month-old infant or a 90-year-old with severe dementia, therefore the non-sentient humans can be gently terminated with no moral consequence.

Psychologist Dr. Richard Ryder takes another approach, basing his activism on “painience,” or the ability to feel pain: “the only convincing basis for attributing rights, or, indeed, interests to others.”

Ryder goes on to say that humans exploit animals because “we are more powerful than they are.” But in what ways? Elephants have far more physical strength. Nine years ago, a 41-year-old female named Patience attacked and killed one of her keepers at the Springfield, Mo., Zoo. Should Patience have stood trial as a legal “person”? What about lions and grizzly bears who kill humans? Or other animals? Would a rabbit have legal standing to sue the fox who ate her mate? Of course not, animal-rights activists say. But why not?

In his documentary What Is a Woman? Matt Walsh tries and fails to get a clear definition of womanhood out of transgender advocates. Walsh says in interviews that his follow-up documentary may well be titled What Is a Human? We already know.

Grounding personhood in anything other than the image of God has led to slavery and exploitation and infanticide and continues to tie us up in knots. Animals have better sense.


Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.

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