Happy the elephant is the latest test case for an animal rights group

An animal rights organization recently asked the New York State Court of Appeals to rule that Happy, a 48-year-old elephant, be considered a “person” for the purposes of habeas corpus, which is a legal process to determine whether people have been unlawfully imprisoned or whose liberty has been unlawfully restricted.

The allegation is that the elephant’s rights are being violated by the elephant being confined to the Bronx Zoo, and the animal rights organization’s desire is to use habeas corpus proceedings to secure his release to a larger animal sanctuary. Lower courts have held that an elephant is not a “person” for these purposes.

Happy (left) and his companion Patty, at the Bronx Zoo, who the Nonhuman Rights Project says illegally deprived the elephant of his liberty. (Courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society)

The oral argument in New York’s highest court of appeals took place on May 18. The case was originally brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project against the zoo director and its operator, the Wildlife Conservation Society, claiming the elephant was illegally confined to the zoo.

Habeas corpus is a fundamental right within the common law and the US Constitution that protects a person from wrongful or indefinite imprisonment. The Nonhuman Rights Project’s strategy is to expand the definition of “person” to include certain highly sentient animals, such as chimpanzees and elephants.

As part of its petition for Happy, the animal rights organization submitted affidavits from five elephant cognition experts, stating that elephants share many cognitive abilities with humans, including self-awareness, empathy, awareness of death and intentional communication.

The trial court and mid-level appeals court previously denied the petition, finding that the use of the legal writ of habeas corpus is limited to human beings, as previously determined in an appeal ruling. earlier regarding similar habeas corpus petitions by the Nonhuman Rights Project on behalf of two captive chimpanzees, Tommy and Kiko.

The Court of Appeals in these cases found no legal basis or legal precedent to conclude that the human characteristics of Tommy or Kiko make them persons for the purposes of habeas corpus. Additionally, decisions about whether and how to incorporate nonhuman animals into legal constructs designed for humans is a matter best suited to lawmakers, the court said.

In its appeal for Happy, the Nonhuman Rights Project countered that habeas corpus is a creation of the common law, not statute. “Thus, whether an individual is a ‘person’ who can invoke the protections of habeas corpus is a substantive common law question for the Court to decide, not for Parliament. »

Several organizations have filed amicus briefs supporting the position that it is not appropriate to grant animals the legal status of person, including a joint submission by the AVMA, the New York State Veterinary Medical Society and of the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges.

“These organizations have a substantial interest in ensuring that New York laws promote sound animal ownership and welfare policies through clearly defined rights and responsibilities,” the brief states. “Granting animals the same personhood as humans, including for the purposes of a writ of habeas corpus, defeats this purpose.

“Amici urges the Court to affirm that an animal is the legal property of its owners, recognizing that animals are cherished and protected by the laws of this state in a way that is different from inanimate and welfare-advancing ‘things’. to be animals.”

It is unclear when the appeals court will rule on the habeas petition.

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