Why Elephants Require Legal Personhood
Winning the Factual Battle Against the Los Angeles Zoo, Losing The Legal War – Part One
On July 23, 2012, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John L. Segal decided the case of “Aaron Leider v. John Lewis.” It was, in fact, the case of “The Asian Elephants of the Los Angeles Zoo v. the Los Angeles Zoo.” The elephants imprisoned at the zoo – Billy, Tina, and Jewel – won almost all the facts, so ably presented by Attorney David B. Casselman. Then they lost almost all the law – not Casselman’s fault – and that is why their case is Exhibit “A” for “Why Elephants Require Legal Personhood.”
This week I will present some of the Judge’s stunning findings of fact. Next week I’ll show how, under present law, when Billy, Tina and Jewel are mere legal things, devoid of legal rights, the facts hardly mattered.
Judge Segal was acid in his fact-finding. “All is not well at the Elephants of Asia exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo,” he began. Contrary to what zoo representatives had told the Los Angeles City Council to induce them to pony up $42,000,000 for the exhibit, “the elephants are not healthy, happy, and thriving.”
The elephants’ keepers apparently lie to Dr. Curtis Eng, the zoo’s chief veterinarian, about maintaining the exhibit’s soil, leaving the elephants with damaged feet. The zoo frustrates the elephants by placing electrical fencing between them and trees they wish to rub against. Every elephant engages in “abnormal and unhealthy” behavior. All the elephants “are emotionally and socially deprived.” In short, the quality of the elephants’ zoo lives “is not good, and all this is having serious repercussions for their physical and emotional well-being.”
Nothing is done to help them, for the elephants languish in the clutches of ignoramuses. Senior Elephant Keeper Victoria Guarnett “has no experience with elephants in the wild or with elephants in any zoo or other facility other than the Los Angeles Zoo. Moreover, Ms. Guarnett had somewhat shocking gaps in her knowledge of elephants and … some surprising misconceptions.” That Ms. Guarnett is “essentially controlling [the elephants’] lives in captivity,” the judge found “particularly disturbing.”
The judge was shocked that Senior Keeper Guarnett requires Billy to stand on his back legs before spectators. Her excuse that this was merely an exercise to develop Billy’s muscles in the event he has the opportunity to mate he labeled “absurd.” Keepers make Billy lie down for visitors, too. The judge scornfully rejected Guarnett’s claim she has no knowledge of the extreme abuse Billy endured to be trained to do just that. “For someone who claims to love the elephants, it is shocking that she would command or at least assist them in performing an activity that the elephants were taught to do in this way.” Both Senior Keeper Guarnett and Dr. Eng interpreted the elephants’ obviously abnormal stereotypical behavior as something positive: the Judge found this “incredible.”
The source of these “(misguided) conceptions” was Dr. Cathleen Cox, the Los Angeles Zoo’s research director. Dr. Cox “admittedly does not know very much about elephants and, like Dr. Eng and Ms. Guarnett, has some strange ideas about elephant behavior … Dr. Cox has not published or submitted for publication any peer-reviewed articles about elephants, nor has she studied or examined any elephants in the wild or at any other zoo. She has never consulted with any expert on wild elephant behavior. She equates the treatment of elephants with the treatment of children (though presumably not enough to object to keeping elephants in captivity”). Dr. Cox “seems to appreciate that something is terribly wrong with the elephants, but seems (and on the witness stand appeared at a complete loss, probably because of her lack of qualifications), for what to do about it. [But] her testimony at trial was internally inconsistent, often confused, and at times bewildering.”
The judge’s summary of what the elephants at the Los Angeles Zoo must endure every day was unsparing. “Thus, the Elephants of Asia exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo is not a happy place for elephants, nor is it for members of the public who go to the zoo and recognize that the elephants are neither thriving, happy, nor content. Captivity is a terrible existence for any intelligent, self-aware species, which the undisputed evidence shows elephants are. To believe otherwise, as some high-ranking zoo employees appear to believe, is delusional. And the quality of life that Billy, Tina, and Jewel endure in their captivity is particularly poor.”
Attorney Casselman wanted the elephants out of the Los Angeles Zoo. But that was not to be.
Part Two: What the judge decided, and why, under existing law, he had no choice.