“I don’t know why the elephant did it,” remarked an old friend, looking and sounding completely spent on a video chat. Last week, before the details of the now seemingly accidental killing of a pregnant pachyderm in Kerala had emerged, the grotesque, tragic event seemed like the final straw.
We had, all of us on that call, become inured to suffering. The millions abandoned by the state and society, trudging along for months to go home, had become a talking point, more than a thinking point; America was fighting its own worst instincts; professional and economic uncertainty clouded plans for the future. To go on with life, without completely giving in to either anger or despair, all you can do is not think about things too hard. Yet, all of us in the cocoon of relative privilege, so accepting of injustice and suffering, eaters of meat, were saddened by an elephant dying, moved almost to tears.
This reaction says something about the nature of the animal, as well as the best and worst instincts in humanity. An elephant, even more than a dog (a pet), is a person. From Aristotle’s time — he said an elephant is “the animal that surpasses all others in wit and mind” — human beings have seen elephants as wise, formidable, useful and good. Its brain has as many neurones as ours and is likely capable of complex thoughts and emotions we are as yet unaware of. Elephant societies are matriarchal and deeply bonded. They remember their dead, show grief and have language. They think. Yet, they are not considered persons, not in a legal sense.
Jane Goodall, whose decades-long work with chimpanzees has shown how close they are to us — both in decency and violence — has long argued for the rights of non-human persons. Along with dolphins and pachyderms, great apes have the intelligence and emotional and social complexity to be considered sentient. Yet, little has been done seriously in this regard.
There are two conceivable arguments against granting basic rights to non-human persons. The first is ridiculous, the second is not.
One, that the law, made by humans, should apply only to humans, is specious. For hundreds of years, legal persons have not been co-terminus with homo sapiens. Rivers have rights in India, as do corporations. Animal rights are a broad term, to do with cruelty. But the right to land, habitat and a way of life is not guaranteed to elephants and other sentient creatures.
A right is not enshrined in a violation, an injunction on the immorality of those who would violate it. Rather, it recognises the intrinsic and inalienable worth of those whom it is conferred on. Both in terms of legal first principles and morally, there is little argument against the granting of such rights, especially since there is enough science behind the claims to personhood of these creatures.
The second and more convincing argument against making elephants persons is the same reason that its death caused such an emotional reaction in my friend.
In 1936, George Orwell wrote “Shooting an Elephant”, which described his time as a police officer in Burma, where he had to kill a male elephant in must because of the pressures of a crowd. A popular story, it is an indictment of colonialism and the cruelties of power. Orwell writes: “We began questioning the people as to where the elephant had gone and, as usual, failed to get any definite information. That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes.” The killing of the elephant, all these years later, is as murky, its truth more disturbing than even the suffering of the animal.
It seems now that the elephant was likely killed by accident, with a trap meant for pests like boars. It is also clear that the death is being used by certain elements as a way to spread bigotry, against Muslims.
Initially, the elephant’s death seemed like an act of wanton cruelty, another injustice in a country where callousness seemed to have become the norm. The real problem, though, runs deeper and is cause for much more despair.
The elephant that died was certainly a person. But we may not be the competent authority to judge it so.
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