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Lawsuit claiming wrongful imprisonment of elephants at Colorado zoo heading to state supreme court

Attorneys for elephants at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo appeal lawsuit advocating for their civil rights
Attorneys for elephants at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo appeal lawsuit advocating for their civil rights 02:55

A legal battle over the rights of elephants will be up to justices in the Colorado Supreme Court. 

The lawsuit, which claims five elephants at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs are being held against their will, and are subsequently suffering undue stress and brain damage, seeks for the elephants to be placed at a wildlife sanctuary, where they can have more room to roam comfortably. 

"If you are in an environment where you could only walk a hundred yards in each direction, and you could never leave, and you were suffering damage to your brain as a result of that environment, because there was so little for you to do, I think you would agree that you were being imprisoned against your will," says attorney Jake Davis with the Nonhuman Rights Project, the organization that tile the suit. "That's exactly what's happening with these elephants."


The lawsuit first lost in district court, and this week, attorneys for the elephants – Jambo, Kimba, Loulou, Lucky, and Missy – appealed to the state's Supreme Court.

Davis argues the elephants should be granted expanded civil rights, utilizing a constitutional doctrine known as habeas corpus, which allows humans the right to challenge in court when they believe they are being wrongfully imprisoned.

"Elephants live in multigenerational, matriarchal herds, they raise their young, they mourn their dead, they hold vigils over the deceased, they collaborate, they communicate, they plan for tomorrow, they remember the past," Davis said. "I would challenge you by saying there are numerous humans who can't advocate for themselves, who can't enter into a legal contract, who can't tell you what they want, including the comatose... but they're granted rights, and so, we think that the law should expand those rights to autonomous, extraordinarily, cognitively complex individuals like elephants."

Asked why they are only making this argument for the elephants at the zoo, and not the other animals, Davis said, "we have seven of the world's most renowned elephant scientists supporting our legal arguments with elephant science, and this is decades, upon decades of study.... without this science, we wouldn't be able to make the arguments we do now... but we have not identified a species that has as much scientific backing about the autonomous nature, the extraordinary cognitive complexity that elephants possess."

But John Suthers, an attorney for the zoo, says it should be up to legislators to decide whether animals should receive expanded rights, not the courts. 

"The Colorado legislature is weighed in and banned elephants and other types of animals in circuses, but, interestingly enough, the Colorado Legislature specifically said, it's appropriate for elephants to be exhibited in zoos that are AZA accredited," Suthers said. "The Cheyenne Mountain Soo has the highest AZA accreditation possible. In fact, it got a perfect score in its last accreditation."

He says the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has dedicated significant resources and time over the last several years to improve elephant habitats, as well as the welfare of all their animals.

Suthers believes the Nonhuman Rights Project's continued failed attempts to bring these kinds of suits are simply stunts to drum up donations.

"This is not their first rodeo. They have filed similar suits over the last decade in numerous other states, and they failed in every single one of them... but they continue to bring the suits, and I think it's pretty apparent that they do so to continue to generate publicity for their cause," Suthers said. 

More than two dozen law professors from the University of Denver have written to the state's Supreme Court justices in support of the elephants. 

Molly Condit

Attorney David Lane also wrote to the justices supporting the elephants. 

While he doesn't believe the case has a good chance in Colorado, he believes it's a worthy cause, and it will help move the needle toward improved animal and environmental protections. 

"I really think this will probably go down in flames... but this is how the law changes. The law changes very incrementally... very tiny little baby steps," Lane said. 

He says if justices do rule in favor of the elephants, it could open the doors for more climate change and environmental justice lawsuits. 

"When land is being ravaged in the eyes of various groups, they would have standing to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the land that's being ravaged," Lane said. "When American companies are involved in ruining natural habitats for other animals, those animals would have a voice in court to say, 'no, strip mining can't be done here, you can't leave mining tailings on grazing land.'"

But Suthers cautions that could also have negative consequences. 

"If you suggest that animals have habeas corpus rights, you now can challenge their detention. There's a lot of intelligent animals out there," Suthers said. "What's the ramifications for pet ownership? What's the ramifications for service animals? What's the ramifications for work, animals on a farm? Things like that? What's the ramifications for animals that ultimately wind up in our food chain? It could have an incredible, enormous, disruptive impact on our society."

Davis counters it's not about setting a precedent, but instead, protecting the elephants' wellbeing. 

"We don't care about anything besides getting these elephants out of the zoo and into a sanctuary," Davis said. "This isn't about legal precedent. This isn't about disrupting the system. This is about saving five elephants who deserve to live out their lives with dignity."

The case will likely receive a ruling later in the fall. 

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