Bronx Zoo elephant does not have same rights as a person, New York court rules

An animal advocacy group had called for Happy’s release through habeas corpus, arguing she shares ‘cognitive abilities with humans’ and is being ‘illegally detained’

The elephant Happy in the enclosure where she lives in the Bronx Zoo in a 2018 image.
The elephant Happy in the enclosure where she lives in the Bronx Zoo in a 2018 image.Bebeto Matthews (AP)

Happy, an Asian elephant, will continue to live in captivity at the Bronx Zoo, where she is one of the main attractions. An appeals court ruled on Tuesday against an animal rights group that sought the release of the elephant on the grounds that she is the equivalent of a person being illegally confined.

In a 5-2 decision, the state Court of Appeals in Albany ruled against the writ of habeas corpus filed by the advocacy group Nonhuman Rights Project, which claims that the 51-year-old elephant shares cognitive abilities with humans and is being illegally detained.

“While no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion,” wrote presiding judge Janet DiFiore in the majority opinion, “habeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained, not nonhuman animals.”

DiFiore also said releasing Happy would have “a huge destabilizing impact on society” and could spark a cascade of habeas corpus petitions to release animals, including many pets, farm animals and service animals like the horses that pull the carriages for tourists in Central Park, whose hypothetical prohibition has been passed on from one mayor to the next. This is a recurring controversy that is never resolved, due to the objections of the coachmen, whose livelihood would be endangered if animal traction was banned.

The Albany judge maintained that the debate on whether “non-human animals” must be granted the same rights as people should fall to the Assembly, the seat of the state’s legislative power.

The Florida-based non-profit launched its legal campaign four years ago, requesting that the elephant be released into one of two sanctuaries for pachyderms that exist in the United States. Happy, argued the animal group, has lived for more than 40 years in a space of 0.4 hectares, segregated from the rest of the elephants in the zoo. The NonHuman Rights Project alleged that Happy is “imprisoned” in these conditions. In its legal battle, the group had already received two adverse rulings from lower courts, which considered that Happy is receiving the attention and care she needs.

In two dissents, the judges who voted to consider Happy a person expressed their disagreement with the ruling. “Her captivity is inherently unjust and inhumane. It is an affront to a civilized society, and every day she remains a captive – a spectacle for humans – we, too, are diminished,” wrote Jenny Rivera. Her colleague Rowan Wilson argued that the court should grant habeas corpus for Happy “not just because she is a wild animal who is not meant to be caged and displayed, but because the rights we confer on others define who we are as a society.”

Despite the adverse ruling, The New York Times noted that this was the first case of its kind in the English-speaking world to reach so high a court. The advocacy group is not giving up, and last month it filed habeas corpus proceedings to secure the release of three confined pachyderms in a zoo in Fresno, California. It is also especially active in asserting the rights of primates.

The Albany court alluded to possible legislative action by state lawmakers to recognize the rights of non-human animals, in line with legal changes in other parts of the world. In December of last year, Spain regulated the legal rights of animals and considered them “sentient beings.”

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