Can an elephant also be considered a person? That’s what New York’s high court is being asked.
A ruling could be months away in the case involving Happy, an Asian elephant at the Bronx Zoo, that an animal rights group wants moved to a more spacious sanctuary.
ALBANY, N.Y. — The trunk is the dead giveaway: Happy is an elephant.
But New York’s highest court is being asked: Can the Bronx Zoo’s Asian elephant also be considered a person?
It’s a closely watched case over whether a basic human right can be extended to an animal.
And the Nonhuman Rights Project, seeking better living conditions for the elephant, says the answer is yes. The advocacy organization argues that Happy is an autonomous, cognitively complex elephant worthy of the rights reserved by law for “a person.”
The Bronx Zoo says Happy is neither illegally imprisoned nor a person but is a well-cared-for elephant “respected as the magnificent creature she is.”
Happy has been at the Bronx Zoo for 45 years. The New York Court of Appeals heard arguments over whether the elephant should be released through a habeas corpus proceeding, which normally is a way for people to challenge what they argue is illegal confinement. A ruling could be months away.
The Nonhuman Rights Project wants Happy moved from her “one-acre prison” at the zoo to a more spacious sanctuary.
“She has an interest in exercising her choices and deciding who she wants to be with and where to go and what to do and what to eat,” attorney Monica Miller said before oral arguments to the court. “And the zoo is prohibiting her from making any of those choices herself.”
The group says that, in 2005, Happy became the first elephant to pass a self-awareness indicator test, repeatedly touching a white “X” on her forehead as she looked into a large mirror.
The zoo and its supporters say that, if the Nonhuman Rights Project wins the case, it could lead to more legal actions on behalf of animals, including other animals in zoos and also possibly pets.
“If there’s going to entire be a rewrite and a granting to animals of rights that they never had before, shouldn’t that be done by the Legislature?” Kenneth Manning, an attorney for zoo operator Wildlife Conservation Society, asked the judges.
Happy was born in the wild in Asia in the early 1970s, captured and brought as a 1-year-old to the United States, where she eventually was named after one of the characters from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Happy arrived at the Bronx Zoo in 1977 with an elephant named Grumpy that was fatally injured in a 2002 confrontation with two other elephants.
Happy lives in an enclosure next to Patty, the zoo’s other elephant.
The zoo’s lawyer argued in court filings that Happy can swim, forage and engage in other behavior that’s natural for elephants.
“The blatant exploitation of Happy the elephant by NRP to advance their coordinated agenda shows no concern for the individual animal and reveals the fact they are willing to sacrifice Happy’s health and psychological well-being to set precedent,” a written statement from zoo officials said.
NRP’s lawyers say the animal’s right to “bodily liberty” is being violated. They say that, if the court recognizes Happy’s right to that liberty under habeas corpus, the elephant would be a “person” for that purpose and then must be released.
During oral arguments, Judge Jenny Rivera asked Miller about the implications of the group’s position on human-animal relationships.
“So does that mean that I couldn’t keep a dog?” Rivera asked. “I mean, dogs can memorize words.”
Miller said there’s more evidence to show that elephants are extraordinarily cognitively complex, with advanced analytical abilities.
Lower courts have ruled against the animal rights group, which also has lost similar cases.
Last October, though, at the urging of a different animal rights group, a federal judge ruled that Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s infamous “cocaine hippos” could be recognized as “interested persons” with legal rights in the United State. The decision had no real ramifications for the hippos, given that they’re in Colombia.
In a friend-of-the-court brief, the New York Farm Bureau and other agriculture groups said the NRP’s “newfangled theory of personhood” would sweep up pigs, cows and chickens.
The National Association for Biomedical Research said authorizing such petitions for animals could drive up the costs of conducting critical research.
State and national associations representing veterinarians filed a brief saying the suit promotes animals’ rights above their welfare.
Supporters of the animal rights effort see this case as a chance for society to improve the ethical treatment of animals.
“We believe this legal moment for Happy represents a key cultural crossroads for thinking more openly and honestly — and less selfishly — about what it would mean to treat the particularity of non-human animals with the moral seriousness it deserves,” a brief submitted by Catholic academic theologians read.