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Is Happy the zoo elephant legally a person? A court will decide.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/18/2022 Marisa Iati
New York's highest court is considering whether an elephant at the Bronx Zoo is entitled to the same right of protection against unlawful imprisonment that people have. (Gigi Glendinning via Reuters) New York's highest court is considering whether an elephant at the Bronx Zoo is entitled to the same right of protection against unlawful imprisonment that people have. (Gigi Glendinning via Reuters)

Is an elephant legally a person?

That’s the central question in a case that New York’s highest court considered Wednesday in a dispute over the living quarters of Happy, an Asian elephant at the Bronx Zoo.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, an animal rights organization, argued that Happy is an autonomous and cognitively complex animal entitled to the same right of protection against unlawful imprisonment that people have. The zoo contends that the elephant is well cared-for and that her holding is not illegal.

“What we’re saying is that she has a right to bodily liberty and that that makes her no longer a thing,” Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, said in an interview. “She’s a person.”

In a hearing, the seven-member New York State Court of Appeals asked attorneys for both parties about the definition of autonomy, how the elephant’s bodily liberty could be achieved and the potential effects of a decision that Happy should be moved.

U.S. history is rife with contentious arguments over who or what constitutes a person, philosophically and under the law. Enslaved people were once counted as three-fifths of a person for determining taxes and congressional seats. Courts have ruled that corporations can be considered persons in some circumstances, such as questions of political speech. The idea that fetuses are persons is central to some antiabortion arguments.

Another point for elephant intelligence: They know when their bodies are in the way

In Happy’s case, her attorneys contend that she is so autonomous and intelligent that she has a right to bodily liberty. She passed a mirror self-recognition test in 2005 — an indication of her self-awareness, her advocates say. Their legal argument focuses on the common-law right of habeas corpus, which is typically used to determine whether a person’s detention is lawful.

Video: Jailed at the zoo? NY court weighs elephant's rights (Reuters)

The Nonhuman Rights Project also makes a practical argument: Happy is not, in fact, happy in captivity, the organization says. The group is seeking to move her from the zoo, where she has lived since 1977, to one of the country’s two elephant sanctuaries where, the advocates say, she would have more space and interaction with other elephants.

The zoo contends that Happy’s attorneys are discounting her well-being in service of winning a legal argument. Happy is treated compassionately, has contact with another elephant and has bonded with her zookeepers, the organization says.

“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 organization said in a statement.

A ruling to move Happy could also create a slippery slope, the zoo argues. Attorneys for the facility wrote in a court document that if Happy is determined to be a person, zoo animals across the country would have to be released or transferred to new facilities.

Happy’s case is part of a years-long fight by the Nonhuman Rights Project to gain legal recognition for the personhood of what it considers cognitively complex animals. The group previously argued unsuccessfully that two caged chimpanzees were legally persons and should be moved to a sanctuary. Since launching Happy’s case in 2018, the organization has lost in several lower-level courts.

Chimpanzees are animals. But are they ‘persons’?

Happy, roughly 50 years old, was born in the wild and named after a dwarf from the movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Happy’s living space at the Bronx Zoo is separated by a fence from that of the zoo’s other elephant. The two elephants touch trunks, smell each other and communicate, Mary Dixon, a spokeswoman for the zoo, said Wednesday.

Ken Manning, an attorney for the zoo, told the New York State Court of Appeals that Happy is not suffering or being held wrongfully. He also argued that granting Happy a right to bodily liberty would amount to wrongfully putting her in the same category as people.

“There’s got to be an illegal detainment in order for the remedy to even apply at all,” he said. “And here there’s been no illegal detainment.”

The court also sought to determine the scope of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s argument. One of the judges asked an attorney for the group if she was seeking a ruling just for Happy or for a broader group of elephants.

“It would be disingenuous to not think that this would be precedent for another elephant,” the attorney, Monica Miller, responded. “It certainly wouldn’t automatically free other elephants.”

That strategy was echoed by Wise, who said in the interview that if the court rules in favor of Happy’s release, his organization will ask other New York zoos to release their elephants to sanctuaries. The Nonhuman Rights Project filed a similar lawsuit in central California this month, demanding the release of three elephants at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo — part of the group’s stated attempts to “free as many animals from captivity as possible.”

The New York Court of Appeals is expected to rule in Happy’s case in the coming months.


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