ALBANY, NY (AP) — She has four limbs, expressive eyes, and enjoys strolling through New York’s greenery. Happy, by species, is an Asian elephant. But can it also be considered as a person?
Advocates at the Nonhuman Rights Project say yes: Happy is an autonomous, cognitively complex elephant, worthy of the legal right of “a person.” The Bronx Zoo, where Happy resides, says no: Through an attorney, the zoo says Happy is neither illegally imprisoned nor a person, but a well-groomed elephant “respected as the magnificent creature she is”.
Happy has lived at the Bronx Zoo for 45 years. The state Court of Appeals heard arguments about whether she should be released through habeas corpus proceedings, which is a way for people to challenge unlawful detention.
The Nonhuman Rights Project wants her moved from a “one-acre prison” at the zoo to a more spacious sanctuary.
“She better exercise her choices and decide who she wants to be with, where to go, what to do and what to eat,” project attorney Monica Miller told The Associated Press ahead of closing arguments. “And the zoo forbids her to make any of those choices herself.”
The group said that in 2005, Happy became the first elephant to pass a self-awareness indicator test, repeatedly touching a white “X” on her forehead as she looked at herself in a large mirror.
The zoo and its supporters warn that a victory for Nonhuman Rights Project advocates could open the door to more legal action on behalf of animals, including pets and other species in zoos.
“If there is to be a complete rewrite and giving animals rights they never had before, shouldn’t that be done by the legislature?” Kenneth Manning, an attorney for the zoo operator Wildlife Conservation Society, asked the judges.
Happy was born in the wild in Asia in the early 1970s, captured and brought to the United States when she was one year old, where she was eventually named after one of the characters from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. Happy arrived at the Bronx Zoo in 1977 with fellow elephant Grumpy, who was fatally injured in a 2002 confrontation with two other elephants.
Happy now lives in an enclosure adjacent to the zoo’s other elephant, Patty. The zoo’s attorney argued in court documents that Happy can swim, feed and engage in other behaviors natural to elephants.
“The blatant exploitation of Happy the elephant by the NRP to advance their coordinated agenda shows no concern for the individual animal and reveals the fact that they are willing to sacrifice Happy’s health and psychological well-being for set a precedent,” the zoo said in a prepared statement. .
NRP lawyers say no matter how Happy is treated at the zoo, her right to “bodily liberty” is being violated. They argue that if the court recognizes Happy’s right to that freedom under habeas corpus, she will be a “person” for that purpose. And then she must be freed.
The judges dotted the lawyers for both sides with pointed questions during the closing arguments. Judge Jenny Rivera asked Miller about the implications of the NRP’s position on human-animal relationships.
“So that means I couldn’t keep a dog?” Rivera asked. “I mean, dogs can memorize words.”
Miller said there is now growing evidence that elephants are extraordinarily cognitively complex and endowed with advanced analytical abilities.
Lower courts ruled against the PNR. And the group has failed to prevail in similar cases, including those involving a chimpanzee in upstate New York named Tommy.
But last October, at the request of another animal rights group, a federal judge ruled that Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s infamous “cocaine hippos” may be recognized as persons or “interested persons” having legal rights in the United States. The decision had no real consequences for the hippos themselves, given that they reside in Colombia.
Opponents hope the NRP’s string of court losses will continue with the high-profile New York court.
In a friend of the court brief, the New York Farm Bureau and other farm groups said the NRP’s “new personality theory” would sweep away pigs, cows and chickens. The National Association for Biomedical Research said allowing such petitions on behalf of animals could drive up the costs of conducting critical research. State and national associations representing veterinarians filed a brief stating that the NRP lawsuit promotes animal personality rights above animal welfare.
Supporters of the NRP’s action include public figures such as Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe. Many of them see this case as a chance for society to take a step forward in the ethical treatment of animals.
“We believe this legal moment for Happy represents a key cultural crossroads to think more openly and honestly — and less selfishly — about what it would mean to treat the specialness of nonhuman animals with the moral seriousness it deserves,” a memoir submitted by Catholic academic theologians read.
The court’s decision is expected in the coming months.
At least one animal rights advocate suggests that a single court ruling won’t change society’s view of animal use. Rutgers Law School professor Gary Francione, who is not involved in the case, said it would require a broader cultural shift.
“I have been vegan for 40 years. Don’t get me wrong, I totally disagree with the use of animals,” Francione said. “Just the fact that the court starts saying non-human animals are people under the law is going to raise all sorts of questions, the answers to which won’t be available to many people.”