July 13, 2024

In a rather bizarre move, the city of Ojai, California, has set a legal precedent by formally recognizing the legal rights of elephants. This makes the city the first in the United States to grant legal rights to a nonhuman species.

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The ordinance, known as the “Right to Bodily Liberty for Elephants” is intended to promote animal welfare and redefine the ethical boundaries of humanity’s relationship with supposed “nonhuman animals.”

The Ojai City Council voted 4-1 on Wednesday to recognize elephant’s rights. The city issued a press release noting that Councilwoman Leslie Rule first proposed the ordinance earlier this year.

Introduced by Council Member Leslie Rule and developed with and supported by the Nonhuman Rights Project, the ordinance defines and protects elephants’ right to liberty.

In the early 1980s, an elephant named Tarra was held in captivity in Ojai Valley and used for entertainment, including in an act where she was made to rollerskate. In 1995, Tarra became the first resident of what is now the largest elephant sanctuary in the US. Under this ordinance, which passed by a vote of 4-1, it is now illegal in Ojai to subject an elephant to the lack of freedom Tarra endured.

The ordinance expressly recognizes that elephants possess the right to liberty, prohibits any person from preventing elephants from exercising their right to liberty, and details how the law will be enforced and the penalty for violating it.

This legislation is historic. It’s indisputable that elephants suffer when deprived of their freedom and that animal welfare laws can’t end their suffering. For elephants and the nonhuman animal rights movement, we are proud to support this first-of-its-kind ordinance, and we commend the Ojai City Council for standing up for what is necessary and just.

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Rule explained that the purpose of the ordinance is to “codify an elephant’s fundamental right to bodily liberty,” meaning that one cannot hold an elephant in captivity in the city limits unless their facilities meet the standards outlined in the ordinance.

Critics of the ordinance argue that it is just a symbolic gesture and question its enforceability.

“You know that the law you are trying to push isn’t good when you repeatedly have to say ‘This isn’t a joke’ to the press,” said Justin Barker, a political analyst who focuses on animal and wildlife-related laws. “I mean, you’re giving rights to elephants in one small city in California. It will be tough to give a physical challenge to the law. I mean, whenever these weird wildlife laws are passed, people who are mad challenge them in weird ways. In the early 90’s, there was a big controversy protecting spotted owls at the expense of loggers in the Pacific Northwest. Loggers responded in borderline legal ways getting around the law before directly bringing it front and center by doing things like physically moving the birds.”

There are a few glaring problems with this ordinance, even if it sounds as if it is meant to protect elephants. For starters, it designates violations of the ordinance as an infraction, meaning that those who do not follow it would be subject to fines. Essentially, Ojai’s government is using its position to dictate to residents what they can or cannot do with their own property under threat of fines. It makes little sense to argue that human property rights don’t trump whatever rights animal lovers believe nonhumans have.

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Nevertheless, this is an unusual story that could lead to other cities and states passing laws granting rights to animals. The question is: Will they be violating the natural rights of humans in doing so?

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