Happy the elephant is not a person, New York’s highest court rules

The ruling rejected an effort to move the Bronx Zoo elephant to a sanctuary—and ended the furthest-advancing animal rights case in U.S. judicial history.

Happy, a 51-year-old Asian elephant at the Bronx Zoo, is not a “person,” New York’s highest court has decided, bringing to a close a case that forced the courts and the public to reflect on what rights human society owes highly intelligent animals. The court’s 5-2 ruling on June 14 means Happy is not entitled to the fundamental right of bodily liberty, or freedom from imprisonment.

Last year, the New York Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project, a Florida-based animal civil rights organization. The group argued on May 18 that Happy should be recognized as a legal person and sent to a sanctuary. This was the fourth court the NhRP has argued before on Happy’s behalf, and it’s the highest court an animal rights case has reached in the United States.

Personhood is a legal designation that indicates an entity has the capacity for rights or responsibilities. Corporations, bodies of water, and other animals in countries around the world have been recognized as persons. In the U.S., no specific designation exists for nonhuman animals. In the U.S., animals are things. (Read: A person or a thing? Inside the fight for animal personhood.)

Today’s ruling maintains that viewpoint, explaining that regardless of an elephant’s intelligence, habeas corpus—or the right to freedom from unlawful detention—applies only to human beings. “While no one disputes the impressive capabilities of elephants, we reject petitioner’s arguments that it is entitled to seek the remedy of habeas corpus on Happy’s behalf,” chief judge Janet DiFiore wrote. “Habeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained, not nonhuman animals.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Rowan Wilson disputed the notion that habeas corpus applies only to humans, arguing that the writ was “vigorously used to challenge the detention of slaves when, under law, they were deemed chattel.”

In a statement, the Nonhuman Rights Project applauded “the powerful dissents” as a “tremendous victory” in the fight for animal rights, but the group lamented the fact that Happy will not be transferred to a sanctuary. “This is not just a loss for Happy, whose freedom was at stake in this case and who remains imprisoned in a Bronx Zoo exhibit. It’s also a loss for everyone who cares about upholding and strengthening our most cherished values and principles of justice—autonomy, liberty, equality, and fairness—and ensuring our legal system is free of arbitrary reasoning and that no one is denied basic rights simply because of who they are.”

Representatives of Bronx Zoo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Steven Wise, NhRP’s founder and president, told National Geographic last year that Happy is a “depressed elephant,” adding that “elephants are evolved to move—Happy just stands there.” He argues that Happy should be sent to an accredited sanctuary to be with other elephants in a larger, more natural-setting than her current one-acre enclosure, where she lives alone. As social and intelligent creatures, elephants need companionship, he says—not “solitary confinement.”

Happy has lived at Bronx Zoo, which is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, for more than 40 years. In an email to NhRP supporters in 2019, zoo director James Breheny wrote, “Happy is not languishing. She is quite content and evaluated frequently by the people that know her best including the veterinarians that have cared for her for years as well as the keepers who interact with Happy for hours every day.”

The zoo also counters that Happy isn’t alone because she lives alongside Patty, the zoo’s other elephant, who’s separated from her by a fence. They have “contact,” the zoo said in a 2020 statement. The two elephants can see and occasionally even touch each other from their separate enclosures. But attempts to house them together haven’t been successful. “Neither animal was comfortable in the company of the other, and both elephants experienced different, yet obvious, levels of stress,” Breheny wrote in 2019. He later told a reporter the two were “like sisters who don’t want to share the same room.”

Though there are a handful of solitary elephants in the U.S., the NhRP chose to represent Happy in part because of her pivotal role in helping scientists understand elephant cognition. In 2005, she became the first elephant to pass the mirror test for animal intelligence. Researchers marked a white “X” on Happy’s forehead, and when she spotted herself in the mirror, she repeatedly touched the mark with her trunk, indicating that she recognized the reflection in the mirror as herself, something very few species can do. (Read: ‘Nothing to do, nowhere to go’: What happens when elephants live alone.)

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact

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