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Illegally jailed at the Bronx Zoo? Court to weigh Happy the elephant's rights

Reuters logo Reuters 5/18/2022 By Luc Cohen
An elephant named Happy is pictured in the Bronx Zoo, in New York City © Reuters/GIGI GLENDINNING An elephant named Happy is pictured in the Bronx Zoo, in New York City

By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Should a female elephant have some of the same legal rights as people?

That is the question New York state's top court will consider on Wednesday, the latest development in a years-long push by an animal rights group to free Happy the elephant from the Bronx Zoo.

The 51-year-old Asian elephant has called the venerable New York City zoo home since 1977.

Four years ago, the Florida-based Nonhuman Rights Project began asking New York courts to release Happy to one of two elephant sanctuaries in the United States, saying the animal was being illegally imprisoned.

FILE PHOTO: Entrance to the Bronx Zoo in New York © Reuters/Eduardo Munoz FILE PHOTO: Entrance to the Bronx Zoo in New York

The group said Happy was entitled to habeas corpus, a legal process in which illegally detained people or someone acting on their behalf may inquire about the reason they are being held.

New York's habeas corpus law does not define "person," and the group said Happy should be recognized as one.


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"It's now time to have nonhuman animals such as Happy to be seen not as a thing but as a person who has the capacity for rights," Steven Wise, founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, told Reuters.

Happy has been kept apart from other elephants in a one-acre (0.4-hectare) enclosure at the zoo since around 2006, court records show. Elephants are gregarious and family-oriented animals with complex social lives.

Happy's longtime companion, Grumpy, was attacked by two other elephants earlier that decade. Grumpy never recovered from the injuries and was euthanized. Another of Happy's companions, Sammie, later died.

The zoo's other elephant, Patty, lives in an adjacent enclosure separated from Happy by a fence. The zoo has said the two interact with each other.

Prior efforts to grant legal personhood to animals, including chimpanzees, have been unsuccessful.

The Bronx Zoo, run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, has said Happy is well cared for, and that moving the elephant to a sanctuary would not serve her interests.

"The blatant exploitation of Happy the elephant by NRP to advance their coordinated agenda shows no concern for the individual animal," the Bronx Zoo said in a statement on Wednesday, using an acronym for the animal rights group. "Their concern is winning a legal argument, not what is best for Happy."

A New York trial court in February 2020 dismissed the original petition, calling Happy an "intelligent, autonomous being" who "may be entitled to liberty," but not legally a person. An appeals court later upheld that ruling.

The hearing in front of the Albany-based Court of Appeals is scheduled for 2 p.m.(1800 GMT).

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New YorkAdditional reporting by Thomas RoweEditing by Noeleen Walder, Sandra Maler and Will Dunham)

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