BRONX, N.Y. (CN) — Ruling reluctantly Wednesday against activists fighting to free an elephant held in solitary captivity at the Bronx Zoo, a New York judge said her hands are tied by her inability to recognize Happy the elephant’s rights to personhood.
“This court agrees that Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property. She is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty,” the opinion from Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Alison Tuitt states. “Nonetheless, we are constrained by the caselaw to find that Happy is not a person and is not being illegally imprisoned.”
The Nonhuman Rights Project brought the case last year as a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, a form of relief for cases of unlawful detention where custodian must justify its continued imprisonment of the captive.
Taking aim at the zoo and the organization that manages it, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the challengers argued the 48-year-old Happy should be moved to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee or California based on the notion that she is an autonomous being.
Though the judge ruled against them, Elizabeth Stein, the Nonhuman Rights Project’s New York counsel, said in a phone interview Wednesday that the group is “really thrilled” with Tuitt’s ruling.
Tuitt “really discussed what this case is about,” said Stein, citing the judge’s acknowledgment that elephants are “extraordinarily complex, autonomous beings, whose right to bodily liberty must be recognized.”
“I think her conclusion really speaks volumes to how strongly she feels about the fact that this is an issue that has to be addressed,” the lawyer added.
With Stein’s group vowing to appeal, the zoo issued a statement that called such litigation “wasteful and self-serving.”
“The Bronx Zoo takes excellent care of Happy and will continue to do so, along with all animals here at the zoo,” the zoo said in a statement. “Her well-being is assured by our dedicated staff and all the expertise they bring in providing excellent care for her for more than 40 years.”
While Happy’s was the first such case brought in the U.S. on behalf of an elephant, the Nonhuman Rights Project has filed other lawsuits on behalf of chimpanzees. None of the habeas cases have been successful to date, but Stein said the group takes each court defeat as an opportunity to refine its case.
“Who would have ever believed that we would be in court talking about an elephant as though we were talking about a human being?” Stein said Wednesday. “She [Happy] had her day in court … and that, to me, is how you measure success.”
Tuitt’s ruling emphasizes that, while animals are not property, they are also not quite people and therefore not entitled to the same rights that humans have, in particular the rights granted by a writ of habeas corpus.
“This court is extremely sympathetic to Happy’s plight and the NhRP’s mission on her behalf,” Tuitt wrote. “It recognizes that Happy is an extraordinary animal with complex cognitive abilities, an intelligent being with advanced analytic abilities akin to human beings. Notwithstanding … this court is also constrained to find that Happy is not a ‘person’ entitled to the writ of habeas corpus.”
The Bronx Zoo meanwhile says it knows Happy best, has her interests at heart, and would move her elsewhere if it thought that’s what she needed.
Happy was born in 1971 and has been in captivity almost all her life, having been captured as a baby in Thailand. She’s been alone in her exhibit since the Bronx Zoo suspended its elephant program in 2006.
Citing expert testimony provided by the Nonhuman Rights Project, Tuitt wrote that elephants are highly social animals, exhibiting memory, self-awareness, empathy, an awareness of death and communication skills.
One of the bases of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s argument is that Happy passed the mirror self-recognition test, the first elephant in the world to demonstrate self-awareness in this way.
The zoo also maintains it complies with Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards for Happy’s welfare and is regulated under the Animal Welfare Act. She is closely monitored and bathed daily, Tuitt’s ruling says.
“Happy has developed a familiarity and comfort with her keepers, and she recognizes her surroundings as her familiar, longstanding environment,” Tuitt wrote, citing the zoo’s associate director, Patrick Thomas.
Happy’s previous elephant companions in her zoo enclosure have died; others displayed aggression. While she has 1 acre to wander outside in warm weather, the zoo keeps its animals in indoor enclosures during winter months.
The Bronx Zoo first opened in 1899 and acquired Happy in 1977. In 2006, it decided to stop acquiring new elephants but kept Happy.
Tuitt credited the “extremely persuasive” arguments by the Nonhuman Rights Project made for transferring Happy from the zoo to a sanctuary. Ultimately, however, she said she could not support the avenue it chose for pursuing that transfer.
The zoo called out Happy’s court advocates as perpetuating “inaccurate, misleading or simply false” information about her captivity.
“In fact, Happy is not kept in isolation – she has contact with another elephant; Happy is not languishing; Happy is not kept indoors for half the year; Happy is well cared for by professionals with decades of experience. We have been consistent and transparent in telling people about Happy’s life at the Bronx Zoo,” the zoo said in a statement.
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson called last summer for Happy’s release from the zoo.
“I applaud the Bronx Zoo’s efforts to care for Happy and all animals and their facility, along with the wealth of research the wildlife conservation society has contributed to the field – but Happy and all elephants need more space and resources than the Zoo can provide, plain and simple,” Johnson said in a statement last year, reaffirmed by his office Wednesday.
U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens, weighed in last summer, too, tweeting that her office was looking into the issue.
A Change.org petition to end Happy’s solitary confinement has collected over 1.3 million signatures.