Why Elephants Are Not People


In a controversial ruling, the New York Court of Appeals recently decided that elephants are not people with constitutional rights. While this would seem to be a no-brainer, animal rights advocates believe that giving animals more rights is a natural progression from a few hundred years ago when only the aristocracy had what we conventionally regard as human rights. Since then, rights were extended first to property owners, then all white men, then women, and then blacks and other minorities.

In the New York case, two elephants in the Bronx Zoo were forced to live together in a confined area even though they did not get along. A group called the Nonhuman Rights Project argued that such imprisonment violates the right of habeas corpus and the elephants should be allowed to sue so that they could be released into a larger sanctuary.

The court pointed out that extending constitutional rights to elephants “would call into question the very premises underlying pet ownership, the use of service animals, and the enlistment of animals in other forms of work.” This “would have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society.”

That’s the wrong argument. Animal rights supporters will be quick to point out that earlier courts could have made the same argument about extending rights to blacks, women, non-property-owning white men, and other groups. “If we give men who don’t own property the right to vote, what next? Will we have to give women the right to vote too? What about blacks? Where will it all end?”

The right argument is completely different. Unlike blacks, women, and non-property-owning men, elephants can’t speak for themselves. They can’t tell an attorney or a judge what they really want. They can’t sign legal papers and know what they are agreeing to.

Read the rest of this piece at The Antiplanner.

Randal O'Toole, the Antiplanner, is a policy analyst with nearly 50 years of experience reviewing transportation and land-use plans and the author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

Graph: While airline and Amtrak numbers grew in April (as a percent of 2019 levels), transit numbers fell.

Photo: Elephants at the Bronx Zoo, by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr by Wally Gobetz under CC 2.0 License