New York animal rights court battle seeks to have Bronx Zoo elephant Happy considered a person in a bid to improve his living conditions
ALBANY, NY – The Trunk is the Dead Gift: Happy is an elephant.
But the highest court in New York is questioned: can the Asian elephant at the Bronx Zoo also be considered a person?
It is a closely watched case as to whether a basic human right can be extended to an animal.
And the Nonhuman Rights Project, seeking better living conditions for the elephant, says the answer is yes. The advocacy organization argues that Happy is an autonomous, cognitively complex elephant, worthy of the rights reserved by law to “a person”.
The Bronx Zoo says Happy is neither illegally imprisoned nor a person, but is a well-groomed elephant “respected like the magnificent creature that she is”.
Happy has been at the Bronx Zoo for 45 years. The New York Court of Appeals heard arguments about whether the elephant should be freed through habeas corpus proceedings, which is normally a way for people to challenge what they regard as illegal confinement. A decision could take months.
The Nonhuman Rights Project wants Happy to move from his “one-acre prison” at the zoo to a more spacious sanctuary.
“She better exercise her choices and decide who she wants to be with and where to go and what to do and what to eat,” attorney Monica Miller said ahead of the court argument. “And the zoo forbids her to make any of those choices herself.”
The group say that in 2005, Happy became the first elephant to pass a self-awareness indicator test, repeatedly touching a white “X” on her forehead as she looked at herself in a large mirror.
The zoo and its supporters say that if the Nonhuman Rights Project wins the lawsuit, it could lead to more lawsuits on behalf of animals, including other animals in zoos and possibly pets.
“If there is to be a complete rewrite and giving animals rights they never had before, shouldn’t that be done by the legislature?” Kenneth Manning, an attorney for the zoo operator Wildlife Conservation Society, asked the judges.
Happy was born in the wild in Asia in the early 1970s, captured and brought to the United States when she was one year old, where she was eventually named after one of the characters from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. Happy arrived at the Bronx Zoo in 1977 with an elephant named Grumpy who was fatally injured in a 2002 confrontation with two other elephants.
Happy lives in an enclosure next to Patty, the zoo’s other elephant.
The zoo’s attorney argued in court documents that Happy can swim, feed and engage in other behaviors natural to elephants.
“The blatant exploitation of Happy the elephant by the NRP to advance their coordinated agenda shows no concern for the individual animal and reveals the fact that they are willing to sacrifice Happy’s health and psychological well-being for set a precedent,” said a written statement from zoo officials. .
NRP lawyers say the animal’s right to “bodily liberty” is being violated. They say that, if the court recognizes Happy’s right to that freedom under habeas corpus, the elephant would be a “person” for that purpose and must then be released.
During closing arguments, Judge Jenny Rivera asked Miller about the implications of the group’s position on human-animal relationships.
“So that means I couldn’t keep a dog?” Rivera asked. “I mean, dogs can memorize words.”
Miller said there was more evidence to show that elephants are extraordinarily cognitively complex, with advanced analytical abilities.
Lower courts ruled against the animal rights group, which also lost similar cases.
Last October, however, at the request of another animal rights group, a federal judge ruled that Pablo Escobar’s infamous “cocaine hippos” could be recognized as “interested persons” with legal rights in the United States. The decision had no real consequences for the hippos, given that they are in Colombia.
In a friend of the court brief, the New York Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups said the NRP’s “new personality theory” would sweep away pigs, cows and chickens.
The National Association for Biomedical Research said allowing such petitions for animals could drive up the costs of conducting critical research.
State and national associations representing veterinarians filed a brief saying the lawsuit promotes animal rights above animal welfare.
Supporters of the animal rights effort see this case as a chance for society to improve the ethical treatment of animals.
“We believe this legal moment for Happy represents a key cultural crossroads to think more openly and honestly — and less selfishly — about what it would mean to treat the specialness of nonhuman animals with the moral seriousness it deserves,” a memoir submitted by Catholic academic theologians read.