The nonhuman rights movement suffered a blow Tuesday after New York’s highest court ruled Happy the elephant is not a “person.”
The 5-2 decision from the New York Court of Appeals determined Happy, a female elephant from Asia who lives alone in an enclosed acre of the Bronx Zoo, cannot be afforded the same legal and civil rights as a human being.
The Nonhuman Rights Project, the organization that brought the petition, sought to prove that Happy had been illegally detained by arguing the elephant is a self-aware, intelligent being deserving of the legal classification of personhood. The case has been making its way through the courts since its filing in 2018, where it has faced a series of rejection before being elevated to the appeals court.
The case sought to have Happy — one of the Bronx Zoo’s last elephants — transferred to an elephant sanctuary. The zoo has said that it would no longer bring elephants into its captive elephant program.
“Because the writ of habeas corpus is intended to protect the liberty right of human beings to be free of unlawful confinement, it has no applicability to Happy, a nonhuman animal who is not a ‘person’ subjected to illegal detention,” the opinion authored by Chief Justice Janet DiFiore reads. “Thus, while no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion, the courts below properly granted the motion to dismiss the petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and we therefore affirm.”
Happy has been living alone in her enclosure for more than a decade, following the deaths of two elephants over the years with whom she had been living. The first elephant, Grumpy, came to the Bronx Zoo with Happy in 1977. She was euthanized after two other elephants charged at her, leaving her seriously injured. Another companion of Happy’s, Sammy, died in 2006.
Happy’s plight has received attention in recent years among animal rights proponents and legal scholars awaiting a decision in the potentially landmark case. Happy appeared to recognize her own reflection in a mirror in 1985, passing a test that few animals have. It has been described by advocates as a testament to her capacity for self-awareness, as well as that of other elephants.
Similar cases have made their way through the courts, including a case on whether an Indonesian monkey owned the copyrights to a photograph it took of itself. (A federal appeals court decided it didn’t in 2018, after a settlement between the human and human-run parties.)
Two dissenting judges, Associate Judges Rowan D. Wilson and Jenny Rivera, wrote separate opinions, with Rivera’s concurring with Wilson’s in part.
“When the majority answers, ‘No, animals cannot have rights,’ I worry for that animal, but I worry even more greatly about how that answer denies and denigrates the human capacity for understanding, empathy and compassion,” the opinion from Judge Wilson reads
Attorneys for the Nonhuman Rights Project, who sued on behalf of Happy, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the zoo, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.