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Do Elephants Have The Right To File A Lawsuit Against Their Zoo?

Animal rights activists in Argentina are testing the limits of democratic rights on behalf of elephants they say are being mistreated at the Buenos Aires Zoo.

At the Buenos Aires Zoo
At the Buenos Aires Zoo

BUENOS AIRES — Ever heard the one about the elephant and his lawyer? In a landmark lawsuit that aims to "grant rights' to animals, an Argentine NGO is taking the capital's zoo to court for the cruel treatment it says it has inflicted on three of its elephants. The action followed a groundbreaking 2014 ruling by a city court that recognized Sandra, an orangutan that had spent 20 years in the city's zoo in deplorable conditions, as a "non human subject" with rights that included not being mistreated.

This time, the city's environmental court has accepted that the Association of Civil Servants and Attorneys for the Rights of Animals (AFADA) can represent the elephants, identifying the animals as potential victims of abuse that are "incapable of exercizing their rights alone, which makes action by an attorney necessary." This would be the first such ruling in Argentina recognizing people — in this current case, an NGO — as legal representatives of animals.

In the absence of specific legislation on animal rights, the court would adjudicate using laws protecting handicapped individuals subjected to abuse. The capital's chief environmental judge Blas Matías Michienzi was cited as declaring that "animals have rights and these must be respected by man," who, he stated, will inevitably have to defend those rights.

The Buenos Aires municipality recently turned the zoo into an "ecopark" that reopened in July 2016 with limits on public visits and a more didactic focus.

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