New York court gives elephant Happy life sentence

Happy at the Bronx zoo, animal news
Happy at the Bronx zoo, photo: Gigi Glendinning

New York’s top court ruled on Tuesday that Happy the elephant doesn’t meet the definition of a “person” and needs to stay in her small area at the Bronx zoo. 

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) wanted the zoo to release Happy to an elephant sanctuary in the United States, where she would have a lot more space and be in a more natural environment. 

Since Bronx zoo doesn’t want to send Happy to a sanctuary, NhRP asked the court to grant Happy a writ of habeas corpus -a legal process in which persons who have been illegally detained or someone acting on their behalf can inquire about the reason for their detention- to determine if Happy’s imprisonment was lawful. 

New York law does not define ‘person’, and NhRP wanted Happy to be seen as one to prove illegal imprisonment. But New York’s top court said that as intelligent as Happy is, the elephant isn’t a person and therefore, illegal imprisonment can’t be proven. 

NhRP had argued that the Asian elephant -who was born in the wild in 1971, captured and sent to a zoo- is an “extraordinarily cognitively complex and autonomous nonhuman” who should be “recognized as a legal person with the right to bodily liberty protected by the common law.”

Five judges voted against granting habeas corpus, but two judges voted in favor, which NhRP called a victory: “We applaud the powerful dissents by the Honorable Judges Jenny Rivera and Rowan D. Wilson, which we see as a tremendous victory in a national and global struggle for nonhuman animal rights which we’ve only just begun.”  

Judge Wilson wrote: “When the majority answers, “No, animals cannot have rights,” I worry for that animal, but I worry even more greatly about how that answer denies and denigrates the human capacity for understanding, empathy and compassion.”

Wilson recalled the case of Ota Benga, a Mbuti man, who was kidnapped from Congo and placed on exhibit at the Bronx Zoo in 1906, attracting a quarter of a million visitors.

Wilson said that while Benga was a human being and Happy was not, “The crucial point from both Mr Benga’s and Happy’s confinement… is that both suffered greatly from confinement that, though not in violation of any statutory law, produced little or no social benefit.”

“A gilded cage is still a cage. Happy may be a dignified creature, but there is nothing dignified about her captivity,” Judge Rivera wrote.

“Because the writ of habeas corpus is intended to protect the liberty right of human beings to be free of unlawful confinement, it has no applicability to Happy, a nonhuman animal who is not a ‘person’ subjected to illegal detention,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote about the final decision.

“Granting legal personhood to a nonhuman animal in such a manner would have significant implications for the interactions of humans and animals in all facets of life, including risking the disruption of property rights, the agricultural industry (among others), and medical research efforts,” DiFiore added.

She said that no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion, but “If such relief were granted to elephants, “What of dolphins — or dogs? What about cows or pigs or chickens –species routinely confined in conditions far more restrictive than the elephant enclosure at the Bronx Zoo?” 

“We lament that the Court chose not to do its clear common law duty in this case by bringing Happy’s legal status into the 21st century. In this respect, the majority of the Court appears to be out of touch with the times and has demonstrated a deep misunderstanding of what Happy’s case is about,” NhRP said in a statement.

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