Happy, by species, is an Asian elephant. But can it also be considered as a person?
That issue was before New York’s highest court on Wednesday in a closely watched case over whether a basic human right can be extended to an animal.
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 appeals court 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 lawmakers?” 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 Snow Whites. Seven Dwarves.
She arrived at the Bronx Zoo in 1977.
Happy now lives in an enclosure adjacent to the zoo’s other elephant, Patty. The zoo’s attorney argued in court documents that Happy could swim, feed and engage in other behaviors natural to elephants.
“The blatant exploitation of Happy the elephant by 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 to create 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 peppered 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.
The lower courts ruled against the PNR. And the group has failed to prevail in similar cases, including those involving an upstate New York chimp named Tommy.
But last October, at the request of another animal rights group, a federal judge ruled that Pablo Escobar’s infamous “cocaine hippos” could be recognized as persons or “interested persons.” having legal rights in the United States. The decision had no real ramifications for the hippos themselves, given that they reside in Colombia.