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Happy the elephant: a human rights case in court

New York’s highest court must determine whether Happy, a 47-year-old Asian elephant living at the Bronx Zoo, is unlawfully imprisoned.

Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), a nonprofit civil rights organization that defends the legal personality of great apes, elephants, dolphins and whales, filed its first petition against the zoo in 2018 “demanding recognition of Happy’s legal personality and his fundamental right to liberty and his release into an elephant sanctuary.”

On Wednesday, the New York Court of Appeals heard arguments from both sides for Happy’s release from the zoo. The court will likely issue a decision within the next four to six weeks, representatives from the NhRP and the Bronx Zoo told CNN.

The NhRP’s legal argument revolves around the idea of ​​habeas corpus, which protects against unlawful imprisonment. They argue that at the Bronx Zoo, Happy is being held in the equivalent of solitary confinement, which they say is especially cruel given that elephants are highly social creatures that roam huge swaths of territory at the wild state.

“It’s the nature of the detention and the nature of the case” that makes Happy’s terms a violation of habeas corpus, NhRP attorney Monica Miller told CNN.

Happy, born in the wild in 1971, is one of two Asian elephants currently kept at the zoo, which are kept in separate but adjacent enclosures and are able to smell, see and touch each other with their trunks. through the fence. The organization is pushing for Happy to be moved to an elephant sanctuary, where they say she would have more space, as she would in the wild, and have social contact with other elephants.

“While carrying [elephants] captive and confined prevents them from engaging in normal, self-reliant behavior and can lead to the development of arthritis, osteoarthritis, osteomyelitis, boredom and stereotypical behaviors,” elephant researcher Joyce Poole said in the organization petition. , aggressive, catatonic and fails to thrive.”

The NhRP requested that Happy be released to either the Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary or the Performing Animal Welfare Society Sanctuary in California. Neither group is affiliated with the NhRP.

But the zoo argued otherwise in its response. Happy is in contact with another elephant and is cared for “by well-trained large animal veterinarians and caretakers who treat Happy with respect and kindness”. They point out that the zoo is certified and that Happy, like all resident animals at the zoo, is protected by animal welfare law.

Additionally, Happy and the other animals on whose behalf the NhRP sued, did not seek legal representation from the NhRP, the Bronx Zoo said. And she doesn’t need it.

NhRP’s “concern is winning a legal argument, not what is best for Happy,” the zoo wrote in a public statement. “NRP uses Happy the same way they have used animals in other instances in their effort to overturn centuries of habeas corpus law and enforce their own worldview that animals should not be in zoos.”

And the case also has wider legal implications, according to the zoo. Habeas corpus has never been applied to nonhuman animals in New York, the zoo says, and that would open the door to legal chaos and add greater strain to the state’s legal systems.

“Changing this most fundamental legal concept has implications not only for zoos, but also for animal owners, farmers, university and hospital researchers and, most importantly, every human being who might ask for or need help. ‘access the justice system,’ the zoo wrote. .

But Miller, one of NhRP’s lawyers, says the group is pushing for a much narrower decision. Currently, she says, the legal world has “no room for the distinction between the elephant and the caterpillar. Right now, Happy has the same rights as an ant.”

Miller said Happy “looks more like a human for the purposes of the right to bodily liberty,” noting that the ruling wouldn’t necessarily open the floodgates for other animals like dogs or cattle to get human rights. According to the NhRP, elephants “share many complex cognitive abilities with humans, such as self-awareness, empathy, death awareness, intentional communication, learning, memory, and categorization abilities” , which makes them particularly worthy of the right to habeas corpus. .

Happy has specifically been used as an example of elephant intelligence: a 2006 study of animal self-awareness found that Happy was able to recognize himself in a mirror, a first for his species.

The case also relies on the legal history of habeas corpus. Historically, habeas corpus was used to free slaves in England and the United States, even at a time when slaves did not have legal personality. Thus, according to the organization, there is precedent for using habeas corpus to grant freedom to those without legal personality, such as elephants.

Last year, the UK passed a bill officially recognizing animals as ‘sentient beings’, part of an animal welfare program that also included bills banning most animal exports. live animals and the import of hunting trophies. And habeas corpus was used in 2016 to free a chimpanzee named Cecilia in Argentina from a zoo and move her to a sanctuary in Brazil, according to the NhRP.

But similar legal efforts in the United States have failed. In 2017, a New York appeals court denied a habeas corpus petition for Tommy the chimpanzee, another of the NhRP’s “clients”. The court determined that despite their intelligence, chimpanzees are unable to meet legal obligations and that such animal rights issues were better suited to the legislative process than a trial. More than 20 judges have ruled against Happy’s case and similar cases, according to the zoo.

“At the Bronx Zoo, we are focused on what is best for Happy, not in general terms, but as an individual with a unique and distinct personality,” the zoo said in its statement.

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