Activists say an elephant at the Bronx Zoo is self-aware and shouldn’t live in a ‘one-acre prison’. A New York court ruled that she is not a legal entity.

an elephant peeks through a gate in captivity

Happy the elephant was captured from the wild in 1977 and has lived at the Bronx Zoo since 1977. She was seen here on October 2, 2018.Photo AP/Bebeto Matthews

  • The New York Court of Appeals ruled that Happy the Bronx Zoo elephant is not a legal entity.

  • Lawyers said the zoo’s 265 acres is less than 1% of the space it would cover in a day in the wild.

  • “This was a very difficult legal case for both the elephant and the humans involved,” said one expert.

Since 1977, Happy the Elephant has lived in a one-acre exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. But a New York state court ruling halted a year-long legal effort to address the elephant in the room — if Happy is, well, happy.

In a 5-2 ruling, the New York Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit brought on behalf of the 51-year-old elephant from the Nonhuman Rights Project, an animal rights group, to take her to an elephant sanctuary.

Happy is “a non-human animal that is not a ‘person’ subject to unlawful detention,” the court ruling said.

“No one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving due care and compassion,” the court wrote, but “nothing in our precedent, or indeed that of any other state or federal court, provides support for the notion that the warrant of habeas corpus is or should be applicable to non-human animals”.

“This is not just a loss for Happy, whose freedom was at stake in this case and who remains imprisoned in an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo,” the group said in a statement following the ruling. “It is also a loss for everyone who cares to defend and strengthen our most cherished values ​​and principles of justice – autonomy, liberty, equality and justice – and to ensure that our legal system is free from arbitrary reasoning and that no one is simply denied basic rights. . because of who they are.”

The Bronx Zoo did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Habeas corpus rights provide a way for people to challenge illegal confinement. Notably, other non-human entities such as corporations have already been given legal personality by the courts, allowing them to do some things that only a legal person can.

Lawyers for the Nonhuman Rights Project said Happy lives in a “one-acre prison” and that the Bronx Zoo’s entire 265 acres is less than 1% of the space an elephant would normally cover in a day in the wild.

“She has an interest in exercising her choices and deciding who she wants to be with, where to go, what to do and what to eat,” project attorney Monica Miller told the Associated Press in May. “The zoo is forbidding her to make any of those choices.”

Meanwhile, zoo operators have opposed the move, saying in a public statement in May that it’s taken care of and that the Non-Human Rights Project “is using Happy in the same way they’ve used animals in other cases in their effort to bring down centuries.” of habeas corpus law and impose its own world view that animals should not be in zoos”.

Patty, an elephant who lived with the Bronx Zoo's other remaining elephant, Happy, until they were separated in October 2019.

Patty, an elephant who lived with the Bronx Zoo’s other remaining elephant, Happy, until they were separated in October 2019.Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Happy’s legal team argued that elephants like her are remarkably intelligent animals and therefore should be able to sue under habeas corpus rights.

Lawyers point to cognitive tests from 2005 that showed that elephants – like humans – can recognize each other. Then 34 years old, Happy looked into a 2.5 by 2.5 meter mirror and repeatedly used his trunk to touch an “X” painted above his eye.

“As a graduate student, I studied Happy’s ability to recognize himself in a mirror 17 years ago and am grateful for the attention the work has brought to elephant welfare and conservation efforts,” Joshua Plotnik, now an assistant professor of psychology and behavior of elephants. researcher at CUNY’s Hunter College, told Insider.

“I think it is crucially important, whenever the welfare of elephants living in captivity is considered, that the individual elephant – its personality, its experiences, its relationships with other elephants and with the humans who care for it – should be considered paramount. ”, Plotnik added.

Although he has not worked with Happy since and now spends much of his time studying wild elephants in Thailand, he added that he “always felt that this was a very difficult legal case for both the elephant and the humans involved.”

In disagreement with Tuesday’s majority ruling, Judge Jenny Rivera said Happy “is an autonomous being, if not physically free. The law has a mechanism to challenge this inherently harmful confinement.”

“A gilded cage is still a cage,” added Rivera. “Happy may be a worthy creature, but there is nothing worthy in its captivity.”

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