Friday, June 9, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Elephant to Stay in Bronx Zoo During Fight Over Her Rights

Happy the elephant, whether she’s actually happy or not, will remain in the Bronx Zoo at least for the next few months. 

BRONX, N.Y. (CN) - Happy the elephant, whether she’s actually happy or not, will remain in the Bronx Zoo at least for the next few months.

The Nonhuman Rights Project is arguing 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 and should be entitled to the rights of personhood.

The animal rights nonprofit secured a new order Monday from New York Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt that Happy cannot be moved out of state by the Bronx Zoo until the judge has made a decision on a motion for preliminary injunction on the issue. It’s a continuation of the status quo in the case.

The zoo maintains it has kept Happy, who was captured in the wild in Thailand and delivered to the zoo in 1977, for nearly her entire life. The zoo knows her best, has her interests at heart, and would move her elsewhere if it thought that’s what she needed, it says.

The Nonhuman Rights Project argues Happy is held in solitary confinement in a limited space that restricts her ability to make decisions about her life.

The four hours of oral arguments Monday broke little new ground, according to multiple people who said they were at the prior proceedings last month.

The Nonhuman Rights Project began but did not conclude its arguments for a writ of habeas corpus for Happy, which in U.S. law reports unlawful detention of a person and forces that person’s custodian to prove why they should be imprisoned. It’s the first such case for an elephant in the country.

The parties will resume the proceedings Jan. 6, 2020. The Nonhuman Rights Project is asking Tuitt to create common law personhood for Happy for the single purpose of having the right to bodily autonomy, said the group’s president, Steven Wise.

He referenced the 1772 case of enslaved African James Somerset, which held that slavery was unsupported by common law in England and Wales.

“James Somerset walked into court a thing [and] walked out a person,” Wise said.

Tuitt seemed unconvinced by Somerset and other examples Wise offered.

“But that was a human being,” she said.

Wise described personhood as having a capacity for rights, like an empty water bottle.

“When you make a person,” he said, “you’re constructing a rights container.” He cited case law that says the words “human” and “person” are not synonyms, that even a river could be a person.

“‘Person’ means that the judicial system has decided … an entity is important enough to have the capacity for rights,” Wise said.

One of the bases of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s argument is that Happy passed the mirror self-recognition test.

“Happy is indeed a self-conscious being who understands that she is Happy,” Wise said Monday.

Tuitt questioned the validity of the tests on which the group built its arguments.

“How do you know that?” she asked.

Attorney Joe Wilson argued Monday to be allowed to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

Wilson used a slippery-slope argument to say that if the court granted legal personhood rights to Happy, those same rights might eventually be granted to livestock as well, depriving people of dairy and protein.

The Nonhuman Rights Project says its interests stop at Happy.

At one point, Wise suggested Tuitt go visit Happy herself.

“Perhaps we will all go see Happy,” said Tuitt.

Categories:Civil Rights, Law, National

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.