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Happy the Elephant is Not a Person, New York Court Rules

Happy the Elephant is Not a Person, New York Court Rules

Originally published by and adapted from BBC News.
14 June 2022

Happy the elephant, a long-time resident of the Bronx Zoo, must remain there after a New York court ruled she is not legally a person under US law.

Animal Survival International (ASI) reported on Happy the Elephant back in May. At the time, there were high hopes for a ground-breaking verdict in Happy’s favour.

However, on Tuesday, the state's highest court voted 5-2 to reject an animal rights group's argument that Happy was being illegally confined at the zoo.

While elephants are "impressive", the court said, they are not entitled to the same liberty rights as humans.

The animal rights group sought to have Happy moved to an elephant sanctuary.
The court dispute centred on whether the legal principle of habeas corpus - which guards against illegal detention - should be extended to emotionally complex and intelligent animals.

"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," wrote Chief Judge Janet DiFiore on behalf of the majority.

"Habeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained, not nonhuman animals."

The decision follows that of lower courts which had repeatedly taken the side of the Bronx Zoo in the case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project, a New York-based legal non-profit.

The group had pushed to remove the 51-year-old elephant from the Bronx Zoo, saying she was imprisoned in her one-acre enclosure.

But the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the zoo, rejected this description, saying Happy and her fellow elephant at the zoo are well cared for. It did not respond immediately to a request for comment following the ruling.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Nonhuman Rights Project celebrated the decision's dissenting opinions, calling them "powerful" and adding that it planned to use them in another elephant rights case underway in California.

In her dissent, Judge Jenny Rivera wrote: "[Happy's] 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.”

Happy was born in the wild in Thailand in the 1970s, captured and brought to the US when she was about one. She has lived at the Bronx Zoo since 1977.

She is one of two remaining elephants at the zoo, which has said it will eventually end its captive elephant programme.

“As an organization committed to natural freedom of animals, ASI is strongly opposed to zoos in every form,” said David Barritt of Animal Survival International. “We are extremely disappointed in the outcome of this case, but we hope that it has opened a critical conversation into the rights of animals in captivity. We look forward to the day that animals like Happy are granted freedom from captivity, to live freely in the wild as they ought to.”

Banner Image credit: JackieMalloy

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