The animal rights organisation The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has filed a petition to the San Francisco Superior Court, California, against the keeping of three elephants (Nolwazi, Amahle, and Vusmusi) by Fresno Chaffee Zoo. 

Jake Davis, the NhRP’s staff attorney, claims that Fresno Chaffee Zoo stole the elephants from the wild, and doesn’t give them enough space to roam. The ultimate aim is for the elephants to be moved to an elephant sanctuary. Davis said “The difference between zoos and sanctuaries are the orders of magnitude. Zoos do not allow elephants to live the lives that nature intended for them. Sanctuaries are the closest thing to their natural habitat that we have.” In Defense of Animals had ranked this zoo #9 on its list of the ten worst zoos for elephants just last April.

The NhRP has a similar case in New York about an elephant called Happy kept at Bronx Zoo. Regarding that case, Davis said it is in its second stage of appeals, adding “The goal is to end elephant captivity in New York and then California, and then if that could be parlayed to the end of elephant captivity in other states, we’d be all for it.” The hearing date for the case against the Bronx Zoo is 18th May 2022 at the New York Court of Appeals.

The petitioners in both cases are using the Habeas corpus principle, originally from England but now used all over. The original Habeas Corpus Act 1679 prevented imprisoning people unlawfully in England. The Latin term translates as “you may have the body”, referencing what a judge may say if persuaded that the detention was unlawful. It later became used to fight against arbitrary detention by the authorities or private individuals, and recently it has been used in cases of captive wild animals in an attempt to make judges rule about their legal personhood — in line with a recent ruling made at an Ecuadorian court regarding a captive woolly monkey called Estrellita.