Two-day-old male baby elephant Umesh walks between its thirty-four-year-old mother Indi and sister Omysha in the Kaeng Krachan Elephant Park at the zoo in Zurich, Switzerland, on Feb. 6, 2020. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)
With a “groundbreaking” ordinance, the Ojai City Council—in a 4–1 vote—recognized the legal rights of elephants within the city during a council meeting on Sept. 26. The California city is the first in the U.S. to grant defined and enforceable rights to an animal, according to officials.
grants elephants in the city freedom from forced confinement and other outside control or restraint.
This new city law was approved with support from the Nonhuman Rights Project—a U.S. civil rights organization dedicated to securing the rights of “nonhuman animals.”
According to the organization
, the push for “elephant bodily rights” was inspired by animal researchers who found elephants to have similar traits to humans, including long-term memories, learning abilities, self-awareness, and the capacity to feel empathy.
Courtney Fern, director of government relations for the Nonhuman Rights Project, attended the meeting and commented on their accomplishment.
“For humans as much as nonhuman animals, rights are the only way to protect an individual’s fundamental interests. Recognizing the right to bodily liberty for elephants is the only way to truly protect them from human-caused harm now and in the long term,” Ms. Fern said. “While Animal Welfare laws can help reduce elephant suffering, they do not address the underlying problem, the fundamental loss of their freedom.”
Elephants head towards hay delivered by Kenya Wildlife Services at the Amboseli National Park as feed-aid for forage deprived herbivores hard hit by drought on Nov. 30, 2022. (Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images)
There was minimal discussion between the council members before approving the ordinance.
“I know that it’s easy to make a joke, but it is huge to have the first defined and enforceable right for nonhuman animals in the country,” said Councilwoman Leslie Rule.
Councilman Andrew Whitman—who was the sole member opposed to the ordinance—said he thought the topic was appropriate for a resolution, but not as a city law for Ojai. He also said he felt more concerned about the rights of the city’s wildlife.
“I do not believe that elephants should have been addressed ahead of all the things that we’ve been trying to accomplish,” Mr. Whitman said during the meeting. “If we’re going to do something about animals, we should do it with respect to our local wildlife.”
Councilwoman Suza Francina and Ms. Rule responded to his comment to clarify to the public that the city was still working on wildlife and other animal issues.
“This is a start, not an end,” Ms. Rule said.
According to the city, the issue of elephants’ legal rights is currently in litigation in multiple U.S. courts.