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Animal Law Professors Support New York Elephant Rights Case

By Lauren Choplin

Fifty animal law professors are the latest experts to urge New York’s highest court to hear a case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to free Happy the elephant from the Bronx Zoo to a sanctuary in recognition of her right to liberty.

“Based on their interest in ensuring the field of animal law develops according to rational principles of justice that are consistent with our legal system’s commitment to equality and liberty,” the group has submitted an amici curiae (“friends of the court”) brief to the New York Court of Appeals, arguing that the Court should accept the NhRP’s recently filed appeal on behalf of Happy.

Her case, they write, raises novel legal issues of public importance—specifically, “whether our legal system should regard nonhuman animals as legal persons with legitimate claims to justice or, instead, as property that lacks enforceable legal rights.” These issues are “at the philosophical center of the growing field of animal law,” while “popular interest in animal law cases reveals a strong public engagement with the jurisprudential and philosophical questions raised by our legal relationships with animals.”

Professor Matthew Liebman, Chair of the Justice for Animals Program at the University of San Francisco School of Law, drafted and coordinated the brief, which also criticizes the serious inconsistencies in the appellate decisions issued in the NhRP’s chimpanzee rights cases. These decisions erroneously denied the legal right to liberty to the NhRP’s clients on the grounds that they can’t bear duties and responsibilities, and the First Department in part relied on them to dismiss Happy’s case in December of 2020.

The NhRP continues to argue that the Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the zoo, have unlawfully deprived Happy of her freedom, imprisoning her in an exhibit that is “too small to meet the needs of Happy or any elephant,” as elephant expert Dr. Joyce Poole has written in support of Happy’s release. Happy is the first elephant in the world to demonstrate self-awareness via the mirror test and the first to have habeas corpus hearings to determine the lawfulness of her imprisonment after a New York trial court issued the NhRP’s requested habeas corpus order.

Happy’s case has also received support from experts in elephant behavior and cognition; philosophy; habeas corpus, and Catholic theology. Alongside the NhRP’s litigation, its grassroots advocacy campaign on behalf of Happy has gained significant momentum and drawn the support of such influential public figures as Queen guitarist Brian May, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and animal advocates in New York and around the world. Meanwhile, a petition calling for Happy’s release from solitary confinement has over a million signatures and continues to grow.

In February of 2020, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt issued a decision that was powerfully supportive of the NhRP’s arguments, concluding 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 NhRP looks forward to the possibility of appearing before the Court of Appeals, including Judge Eugene M. Fahey, who reflected on the legal issue of nonhuman animal rights in 2018 in response to two of the NhRP’s chimpanzee rights cases: “Does an intelligent nonhuman animal who thinks and plans and appreciates life as human beings do have the right to the protection of the law against arbitrary cruelties and enforced detentions visited on him or her? This is not merely a definitional question, but a deep dilemma of ethics and policy that demands our attention … Can a nonhuman animal be entitled to release from confinement through the writ of habeas corpus? Should such a being be treated as a person or as property, in essence a thing? … The question will have to be addressed eventually.”

Approval from at least two of the seven New York Court of Appeals judges is needed for the NhRP’s appeal to be granted.

To learn more about Happy and her court case, click here. For all the ways you can help #FreeHappy right now, click here.

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