New York’s top court has ruled that Happy, an elephant residing at the Bronx Zoo since the 1970s, cannot legally be considered a person in a closely watched case that tested the boundaries of applying human rights to animals.
The case brought by an animal rights group argued Happy should be released from the zoo. The Nonhuman Rights Project argued that Happy is an autonomous, cognitively complex elephant worthy of the right reserved in law for “a person”.
The zoo and its supporters warned that a win for the Nonhuman Rights Project could open the door to more legal actions on behalf of animals, including pets, farm animals and other species in zoos.
The state court of appeals ruled on Tuesday 5-2, with a decision written by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore echoing that point. “While no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion,” a writings of habeas corpus were intended to protect the liberty of human beings and did not apply to a nonhuman animal like Happy, DiFiore said.
Happy was born in the wild in Asia in the early 1970s, captured and brought as a one-year-old to the US. She arrived at the Bronx Zoo in 1977 with Grumpy, a fellow elephant who was fatally injured in a 2002 confrontation with two other elephants.
The decision affirms a lower court ruling and means Happy will not be released to a more spacious sanctuary through a habeas corpus proceeding, which is a way for people to challenge illegal confinement.
Extending that right to Happy to challenge her confinement at a zoo “would have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society”. And granting legal personhood in a case like this would affect how humans interact with animals, according to the majority decision.
“Indeed, followed to its logical conclusion, such a determination would call into question the very premises underlying pet ownership, the use of service animals, and the enlistment of animals in other forms of work,” read the decision.
Operators of the Bronx Zoo argued Happy is neither illegally imprisoned nor a person, but a well-cared-for elephant “respected as the magnificent creature she is”.
Two judges, Rowan Wilson and Jenny Rivera, wrote separately, sharply worded dissents saying the fact that Happy is an animal does not prevent her from having legal rights. Rivera wrote that Happy was being held in “an environment that is unnatural to her and that does not allow her to live her life”.
“Her captivity is inherently unjust and inhumane. It’s an affront to a civilized society, and every day she remains a captive – a spectacle for humans – we, too, are diminished, ”Rivera wrote.
The ruling from New York’s highest court cannot be appealed. The Nonhuman Rights Project has failed to prevail in similar cases, including those involving a chimpanzee in upstate New York named Tommy.
Steven Wise, the group’s founder, said he was pleased it managed to persuade some of the judges. He noted that the group had a similar case under way in California and more planned in other states and other countries.
“We will take a really close look at why we lost and we’ll try to make sure that that does not happen again to the extent that we can,” he said.