EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. — A petition filed by an animal rights group months ago against the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was dismissed in an El Paso County Courtroom Sunday.
The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed a habeas corpus petition in July calling for the release of five African Elephants that call the zoo home. The group said the animals were being unlawfully held at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in violation of their bodily liberty.
The NhRP said Missy, Kimba, Lucky, LouLou and Jambo should be released from the zoo and moved to an elephant sanctuary.
In his decision to dismiss the case Sunday,Judge Eric Bentley said since the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo elephants are not humans, the case does not meet Colorado's habeas corpus statutes and therefore NhRP is not able to bring forward a habeas corpus petition to the court.
"No Colorado court – and, to the Court’s understanding, no higher court of any other jurisdiction in the United States that has actually addressed the issue – has recognized the legal “personhood” of any nonhuman species, whether in the habeas context or any other," Judge Eric Bentley wrote. "In sum, NhRP’s habeas petition must be dismissed because (a) Missy, Kimba, Lucky, LouLou, and Jambo, as nonhuman animals, lack standing to bring a habeas petition and (b) even if they had standing, they are not being unlawfully confined."
Habeas corpus petitions are typically filed in Colorado by anyone or any person unlawfully detained by anyone, state actor or not.
The petition went on to explain the intellectual, social, emotional, and biological differences that elevate elephants above their animal kingdom counterparts drawing similar stances to modern human society and interaction. It is because of these differences and perhaps outliers that the NhRP calls for elephants and other animals like chimps and orangutans to be considered "persons" with rights and not "things" under common law.
"This case does not concern just “five elephants,” as the NHRP asserts. (If it did, the NHRP would not be in business.) It concerns, as the NhRP well knows and intends, an opening of a heretofore-unopened legal door that – were it to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and be affirmed – would quite likely have the effect of upending much of our legal system, in which humans, for better or worse, exercise dominion and control over the animal world," Judge Bentley said.
While his decision may be considered "speciesist" by some. Judge Bentley wrote that the court must lean toward dismissal as it says the NhRP is seeking the expansion of existing legal rights rather than enforcement of those rights, and because of this, it is an issue that should be appropriately directed to the legislature and not the courts.
"While it is a relief to get over this first hurdle, it is sad to know that we will continue to pay significant legal fees to further defend ourselves after this group has lost so many times and wasted so much of the court's and four different accredited zoos’ time,” Bob Chastain, president and CEO of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, said. “This out-of-state group makes money off of our distraction from our mission of saving animals from extinction.”
The zoo was disappointed that the court did not rule to cover their attorney fees, the court's reasoning behind this was that the petition represents a "good faith attempt to establish a new theory of law in Colorado."
When it comes to the question of who cares for the elephants, the court noted that the NhRP is attempting to improve the elephant's lives and encourage the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo a more significant relationship with the five elephants. The zoo has fed, cared for, and nurtured the elephants for years at this point.
"This is not just a technicality. There is a legitimate question in this case as to who properly speaks for the elephants (or, in other words, who gets to be the “elephant Lorax”) – the NHRP, which represents that it wants to improve their lives by moving them to an accredited elephant sanctuary, or the Zoo, which has fed them, nurtured them, and taken care of them for many years," Judge Eric Bentley wrote. "It appears to be the Zoo, and not the NHRP, that has the more significant relationship with Missy, Kimba, Lucky, LouLou, and Jambo."
After reaching out the NrHP for comment on the dismissal of the petition, the group provided our sister station in Colorado Springs with the following:
The zoo has already attempted to spin this decision on its social media pages, but one thing about it is clear: based on the factual record before the Court, which consisted of declarations from seven of the world’s most renowned experts on elephant cognition and behavior, Judge Bentley found that the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo 'deprives Missy, Kimba, Lucky, LouLou, and Jambo of the space and variety of terrain that they need to roam, exercise, and live healthy elephant lives; and that they would be better off in an accredited elephant sanctuary.'
'As a matter of pure justice,' Judge Bentley acknowledges, 'the NHRP has made a persuasive case that elephants are entitled to be treated with the dignity befitting their species; and that that cannot be done, no matter how conscientious those who care for them may be, if they are confined in zoos that lack the substantial acreage needed to allow them to flourish.'
However, despite recognizing the injustice inflicted upon these elephants, Judge Bentley concluded that habeas corpus is unavailable to remedy this wrong. This conclusion is simply incorrect. In contrast to his careful attention to the factual record, Judge Bentley’s legal analysis is incomplete, deficient, and mistaken in critical ways, and the NhRP is prepared to demonstrate these errors in future filings.
We are still analyzing the decision, and in the coming weeks, we look forward to announcing our next legal steps. Further litigation will not be necessary if the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo chooses to do what is morally right and just: release the elephants to an accredited sanctuary, where they can live out the rest of their lives in an environment that can meet their complex needs (CMZ can choose to finally accept our standing settlement offer, even though they’ve rejected it in the past). Nevertheless, the NhRP is prepared to litigate this case to its ultimate conclusion. Jambo, Kimba, LouLou, Lucky, and Missy are entitled to their freedom, and they deserve nothing less.
Should the Nonhuman Rights Project decide to appeal the case, it will move to the Colorado Court of Appeals, a process that could take upwards of a year to resolve. If the group fails here, they could appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court to hear the case.