The Ojai City Council voted 4-1 on Wednesday to recognize the legal rights of elephants, becoming the first city in the United States to give legal rights to a non-human animal.
According to a press release, City Councilwoman Leslie Rule first proposed the ordinance earlier this year. Specifically, she wrote the ordinance due to how elephants in Ojai were once made to do circus tricks and were later moved to a large elephant sanctuary. The ordinance argued that elephants are cognitively, emotionally and socially complex like humans, and deserve liberty to lead healthy lives.
“This ordinance will codify for Ojai an elephant’s fundamental right to bodily liberty, which just simply means that you cannot hold an elephant captive in Ojai unless the space is comparable to an accredited sanctuary,” said Rule. “What we can do is we can show, by passing this ordinance, that we are part of a society that sees the changes happening around our understanding of the emotional and psychological and physical complexity of these large, sentient beings that are being held captive in zoos.
“It isn’t a joke. We can do some real good here, as well as being on the right side of history. Let’s encourage society to evolve its basic understanding of its relationship to all nonhuman entities.”
While the ordinance was argued at great length, detractors were not able to sway the City Council from accepting the proposal, with 4 of the 5 City Council members ultimately approving it.
“It’s indisputable that elephants suffer when deprived of their freedom and that animal welfare laws can’t end their suffering,” said Nonhuman Rights Project Director of Government Relations and Campaigns Courtney Fern. “For elephants and the nonhuman animal rights movement, we are proud to support this first-of-its-kind ordinance and we commend the Ojai City Council for standing up for what is necessary and just.”
Ojai City Manager Mark Scott added, “We have known for some time that elephants have strong empathetic responses to one another’s condition. I am glad that we are able to make this statement supporting the place of these noble creatures in our world.”
First in the nation ordinance passed in Ojai
While the ordinance was passed, many have questioned just how far the ordinance can go. The ordinance specifically says that “Each member of the designated species within the City of Ojai, California has the right to bodily liberty. No person shall prevent any member of the designated species from exercising their right to bodily liberty.” It also notes that law enforcement officers can enforce the ordinance. Other detractors noted that the ordinance does little and is more of a publicity stunt than an actual well-meaning law.”
“You know that the law you are trying to push isn’t good when you repeatedly have to say ‘This isn’t a joke’ to the press,” said Justin Barker, a political analyst who focuses on animal and wildlife-related laws. “I mean, you’re giving rights to elephants in one small city in California. It will be tough to give a physical challenge to the law. I mean, whenever these weird wildlife laws are passed, people who are mad challenge them in weird ways. In the early 90’s, there was a big controversy protecting spotted owls at the expense of loggers in the Pacific Northwest. Loggers responded in borderline legal ways getting around the law before directly bringing it front and center by doing things like physically moving the birds.
“Some Colorado ranchers, who hate how many towns are becoming places for the elite, also utilize old rules from the 1800s to send cattle drives through town and really make all the rich people moving there mad. This Ojai law is kind of crazy and is only inviting someone to bring an elephant there and directly challenge it. It stands as an ordinance now, but it won’t really be cemented until it is firmly challenged. I mean, you have plenty of California residents facing personal liberty violations. those should have been dealt with first.”