Happy the Elephant Isn’t a Person, Top New York Court Rules


HR King
May 29, 2001
An Asian elephant named Happy that has been at the Bronx Zoo for more than 40 years will remain there after New York’s highest court ruled on Tuesday that she is not a person, in a legal sense, and therefore not entitled to a fundamental human right.
By a vote of 5-to-2, the Court of Appeals rejected an animal-advocacy organization’s argument that Happy was being illegally detained at the zoo and should be transferred to a more natural environment.
The dispute hinged on whether the cornerstone legal principle of habeas corpus — which people assert to protect their bodily liberty and to contest illegal confinement — should be extended to autonomous, cognitively complex animals like elephants. No, the court said.
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“While no one disputes the impressive capabilities of elephants, we reject petitioner’s arguments that it is entitled to seek the remedy of habeas corpus on Happy’s behalf,” Janet DiFiore, the chief judge, wrote. “Habeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained, not nonhuman animals.”

But in a dissenting opinion, Judge Rowan D. Wilson said that the court had a duty “to recognize Happy’s right to petition for her liberty not just because she is a wild animal who is not meant to be caged and displayed, but because the rights we confer on others define who we are as a society.”
The case appeared to be the first examining whether an animal is worthy of so-called personhood to reach so high a court in the English-speaking world. And while the outcome keeps Happy where she is, the split decision was unlikely to quell the debate over whether highly intelligent animals should be viewed as something other than things or property.
The case was brought as part of a campaign by the Nonhuman Rights Group, an animal-advocacy organization engaged in a long-running legal push to free captive animals. Last month, even as Happy’s fate hung in the balance, the group asserted a habeas claim seeking to have three elephants removed from a Fresno, Calif., zoo.
In New York, the group sought to have Happy moved from the Bronx Zoo, which it said was a prison for her, to one of two vast elephant sanctuaries, which it described as more natural settings that would make Happy’s life happier.

“She’s a depressed, screwed-up elephant,” Steven Wise, the group’s founder, said in an interview before the ruling was announced.

On the other side of the case was the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the zoo and flatly rejected the group’s assertions about Happy’s Bronx existence. She is “well cared for by professionals with decades of experience and with whom she is strongly bonded,” the society said in a statement, adding that the case amounted to “blatant exploitation.”
The subject of the argument was visible on a cool, clear day in May from a monorail trolley rolling through the zoo’s Wild Asia section. She and another Asian elephant, Patty, moved about slowly, separated by a fence in the roughly two-acre, tree-lined enclosure they share, with logs scattered around and a pool nearby.
“Both of our elephants look great,” said a tour guide, offering an assessment that could be hard for the average person to contradict. Happy wandered across her grassy patch in the direction of Patty, ears, trunk and tail waving in morning sun. “They get a lot of attention.”
Elephants are extremely social by nature, roaming in herds and communicating with one another in everything from low-frequency rumbles to the slight angling of their bodies. They have been observed in various mourning behaviors when one of their number dies.
Happy did not experience much of that natural life. Born in the early 1970s, probably in Thailand, she was captured at a young age and brought to the United States, where she wound up at a Florida petting zoo with six other elephants, each named for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” characters.
The Bronx Zoo acquired her and another of the seven, Grumpy, also a female, in 1977. The two lived initially with an older female elephant, Tus, in the Elephant House (not in the Wild Asia section where Happy is now kept).
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Tus, Happy and Grumpy were trained to do tricks, give rides to children and perform at “Elephant Weekends,” wearing costumes made by an edgy downtown performance artist and “playing” tug of war with firefighters and college football players. (The elephants usually won.)

Eventually, they were moved to Wild Asia, as zoos across the country retooled or abandoned their elephant exhibits, partly in response to a growing animal-rights movement. Tus died in 2002. A few months later, Patty and a second elephant, Maxine, attacked Grumpy, fatally wounding her. Happy could no longer be kept with them.



Jan 23, 2018
Cigman, let me express my personal gratitude for your follow up on this important case. I am only disappointed that the plaintiffs were not sanctioned.
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