The New York Court of Appeals ruled that Happy, the elephant at the Bronx Zoo, is not a legal person.
Lawyers said the zoo’s 265 acres is less than 1% of the space it would cover in a day in the wild.
“This was a very difficult legal case, both for the elephant and for the humans involved,” one expert said.
Since 1977, Happy the elephant has lived in a one-acre exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. But a New York state court ruling halted a year-long legal effort to address the elephant in the room: If Happy is, well, happy.
In a 5-2 decision, the New York Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit brought on behalf of the 51-year-old elephant by the Nonhuman Rights Project, an animal rights group, to relocate her to an elephant sanctuary. .
Happy is “a non-human animal who is not a ‘person’ subject to unlawful detention,” the court ruling said.
“No one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion,” the court wrote, but “nothing in our precedent, or indeed that of any other state or federal court, supports the notion that the writ of habeas corpus is or should be applicable to non-human animals”.
“This is not just a loss for Happy, whose freedom was at stake in this case and who remains incarcerated in an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo,” the group said in a statement after the decision. “It is also a loss for everyone who cares about defending and strengthening our most cherished values and principles of justice: autonomy, liberty, equality and fairness, and ensuring that our legal system is free from arbitrary reasoning and that no one is denied justice.” just basic rights. for what they are”.
The Bronx Zoo did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Habeas corpus rights provide a way for people to challenge unlawful confinement. In particular, courts have already granted legal personality to other non-human entities, such as corporations, allowing them to do some things that only a legal person can do.
Lawyers for the Nonhuman Rights Project said Happy lives in a “one-acre prison” and that the entire 265 acres of the Bronx Zoo is less than 1% of the space the elephant would normally cover in a day in the wild.
“She has an interest in exercising her options and deciding who she wants to be with, where to go, what to do and what to eat,” project attorney Monica Miller told the Associated Press in May. “The zoo forbids her from making any of those decisions for herself.”
Zoo operators, meanwhile, opposed the move, saying in a public statement in May that they care for her and that the Nonhuman Rights Project “is using Happy in the same way they have used animals in other cases in their effort to change centuries.” habeas corpus laws and impose their own worldview that animals shouldn’t be in zoos.
Happy’s legal team argued that elephants like her are remarkably intelligent animals and therefore should be able to sue under habeas corpus rights.
The lawyers pointed to cognitive tests from 2005 that showed that elephants, like humans, can recognize themselves. Happy, then 34, looked at himself in an 8-by-8-foot mirror and repeatedly used his trunk to touch an “X” painted over his eye.
“As a graduate student, I studied Happy’s ability to recognize herself in a mirror 17 years ago, and I am grateful for the attention the work has brought to elephant welfare and conservation efforts,” Joshua Plotnik, now assistant professor of elephant psychology and behavior. researcher at CUNY’s Hunter College, told Insider.
“I think it is vitally important, whenever the welfare of elephants living in captivity is considered, that the individual elephant – his personality, his experiences, his relationships with other elephants and with the humans who care for him – is seen as paramount.” , Plotnik added.
While he hasn’t worked with Happy since and now spends much of his time studying wild elephants in Thailand, he added that he “always felt this was a very difficult legal case, both for the elephant and for the humans involved.”
Disagreeing with Tuesday’s majority ruling, Judge Jenny Rivera said Happy “is an autonomous being, if not physically free. The law has a mechanism to challenge this inherently harmful confinement.”
“A gilt cage is still a cage,” Rivera added. “Happy may be a worthy creature, but there is nothing worthy about her captivity.”
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