Elephant Habeas: Steven Wise Shops for a Forum

An elephant holding a brush in its trunk and using it to paint paint an elephant

Elephant painting an elephant
Credit: Deror Avi (CC BY-SA)

What stereotypes come to mind when you think of San Francisco? It’s full of hippies! It has open-air drug markets! It is the home of Star Fleet Academy! Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project may have had such stereotypes in mind when they filed their latest petition for a writ of habeas corpus for the benefit of three elephants. The elephants are kept at a zoo in Fresno, a city in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and no San Francisco. Donald Trump won 45% of the vote for president in Fresno County in 2020, while he won 12% of the vote in San Francisco. So if you’re, say, an animal right lawyer traipsing from court to court, looking for just one judge willing to agree with you that elephants are persons, and if you give credence to the stereotypes, you’d much rather be in San Francisco than in Fresno.

Fresh off his loss in the New York Court of Appeals, and before that, in the Connecticut Court of Appeals, Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project has filed a new petition for habeas corpus in San Francisco. The elephants don’t live in San Francisco, and in response to the Zoo’s motion to transfer the case to Fresno, which points out the the Nonhuman Rights Project has no connection with San Francisco, the NhRP doesn’t even try to suggest any connection between the case and San Francisco.

This forum shopping is just like the forum shopping in the New York case, where Wise sought, unsuccessfully, to have the case heard in a rural upstate court instead of in the Bronx, where the elephants were. Why? In his words, “local courts [in the Bronx] aren’t amenable to his arguments.” Okay, but why Orleans County, whose largest town has about 8,000 people? Wise again: “We simply chose Orleans court because we believed … this kind of issue was fairly complex and that a judge in a more rural court might have more time to really think it through rather than in a busy urban court.” As I wrote at the time:

But to me, this sounds an awful lot like someone who talks like Andy Griffith saying, “Well, shucks, Judge, we wanted a rural judge who really understands animals, and who has some more leisure to think the issue through, unlike those busy urban judges in New York City.” To my ear, this is incredibly patronizing. And in fact, the judge told Wise that her court was quite busy, thank you.

Although I am 100% certain that Wise’s quest to obtain a ruling that elephants are persons is bunkum, I’ve given up predicting his defeat in each case he files, because it’s quite possible that one day some judge, somewhere in this vast country, will rule in his favor. But I think it is highly likely that his ham-handed forum shopping will fail in California as it failed in New York.

One response to “Elephant Habeas: Steven Wise Shops for a Forum”

  1. Alexander Moskovits

    When I think of San Francisco, CA I think of rampant poverty and homeless people living next door to some of the wealthiest people in the United States, including a distant relative who founded Facebook. Love your blogs.

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