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Brief Filed with New York’s Highest Court in Landmark Elephant Rights Case

By Lauren Choplin

Today the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed a brief with New York’s highest court in our habeas corpus case demanding the right to bodily liberty of an elephant named Happy held alone in captivity in the Bronx Zoo.

In May, the New York Court of Appeals—one of the most influential state courts in the US—agreed to consider the NhRP’s arguments on behalf of Happy the elephant, thereby marking the first time in world history that the highest court of an English-speaking jurisdiction will hear a case that demands that a nonhuman animal be given a legal right.

The NhRP’s 14,000-word brief brings together centuries of case law including landmark common law and civil rights cases, the science of elephant cognition and behavior, the origin of legal rights, judicial rulings from outside the US that have granted rights to nonhuman animals, and ethical arguments against elephant captivity. The NhRP is urging the Court to end Happy’s imprisonment as a rightless legal “thing” and recognize her fundamental right to bodily liberty protected by the common law of habeas corpus. A ruling in Happy’s favor would require her release from the Bronx Zoo to an elephant sanctuary “where her autonomy may be realized to the greatest extent possible.”

Happy is a 50-year-old Asian elephant who has been held in captivity in the Bronx Zoo’s one-acre elephant exhibit for nearly half a century, the last 15 years of which she has been forced to live alone. In 2005, she made scientific history as the first elephant to demonstrate self-awareness via the mirror test. In 2018, she made legal history as the first elephant in the world to have a habeas corpus hearing after the Orleans Supreme Court issued the NhRP’s requested habeas corpus order. In early 2019, the Orleans Supreme Court transferred her case to the Bronx. Following three days of hearings, the trial court clearly accepted the NhRP’s legal arguments but “regrettably” denied Happy’s petition because of prior court decisions, which the NhRP will argue were clearly in error.

In 2018, a judge on the Court of Appeals reflected on the legal issue of nonhuman rights in response to the NhRP’s chimpanzee rights litigation: “The issue whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us. Ultimately, we will not be able to ignore it. While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person,’ there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”

Happy’s case has received support from the world-respected experts in elephant cognition and behavior, animal rights law, theology, philosophy, and habeas corpus, including legal scholar and Harvard Law School Professor Laurence H. Tribe. Alongside the NhRP’s litigation, our grassroots advocacy campaign on behalf of Happy has gained significant momentum, drawing the support of influential public figures such as Queen guitarist Brian May, activist and actress Mia Farrow, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and animal advocates in New York and around the world. A petition calling for Happy’s release from solitary confinement has nearly 1.4 million signatures and continues to grow. In October 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio commented on Happy’s plight, telling WNYC “something doesn’t feel right” about keeping Happy in the Bronx Zoo.

The Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the Bronx Zoo, have until Aug. 23rd to file a reply, to which the NhRP will file our reply by Sept. 7th. The Court will not determine a date for oral arguments until after this last filing deadline.

To learn more about Happy and her court case, click here. To join the over 1.4 million people who’ve signed her petition, click here. To make a donation to help ensure the legal fight for elephant rights is as strong as it can be, now and until all elephants can live freely, click here

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