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World’s First Habeas Corpus Order Issued On Behalf Of An Elephant

By Lauren Choplin

New York Elephant Rights Case Moves Forward With World’s First Habeas Corpus Order Issued On Behalf Of An Elephant

~ As the first elephant in the world to demonstrate self-awareness via the mirror self-recognition test, the Nonhuman Rights Project’s elephant client Happy, held alone at the Bronx Zoo, is now also the subject of a legal first ~

~ The Court has scheduled a hearing for December 14th in Albion, NY ~

Nov. 19, 2018—Albion, NY—For the second time in United States legal history and the first time anywhere on behalf of an elephant, a judge has issued a habeas corpus Order on behalf of a nonhuman animal and scheduled a hearing to determine whether she should be released from her imprisonment, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) announced today.

The Hon. Tracey A. Bannister of the Orleans County Supreme Court issued the Order late on Friday, Nov. 16th in a case brought by the NhRP to secure the fundamental right to bodily liberty of an elephant named Happy. The Order sets Dec. 14, 2018 as the date at which oral argument will be held in the Orleans County Court to determine whether Happy should be released immediately from her imprisonment at the Bronx Zoo.

“We are thrilled Happy’s case is moving forward,” said Steven M. Wise, founder and president of the NhRP. “And we look forward to litigating her case on the merits on December 14th.”

The NhRP is seeking Happy’s immediate release from her long imprisonment in the Bronx Zoo. If she is ordered released, the NhRP will urge the Court to order her transfer to an elephant sanctuary where she can meaningfully exercise her autonomy to the greatest extent possible, including having the opportunity to live and interact with other elephants.

Happy is a 47-year-old Asian elephant who was born in the wild and imported to the US when she was a baby. In 1977 she was relocated from the Lion Country Safari in Florida to the Bronx Zoo. For the last twelve years, the zoo has housed Happy in a portion of its 1.15-acre exhibit, separated from elephants Patty and Maxine who, in 2002, fatally injured Happy’s longtime elephant companion Grumpy. In the winter, Happy lives in a cage in a holding facility.

Wise said world-class experts have found that “Happy is an autonomous being who evolved to walk 20 or more miles a day as a member of a multi-generational large social group. The entirety of the zoo’s elephant exhibit provides far less than even one percent of the space she would roam in a single day in the wild. She doesn’t belong to a social group. Her autonomy is thwarted daily. This has got to stop.”

Hours before the issuance of the Order on Friday, Wise and NhRP attorney Elizabeth Stein took part by phone in a 40-minute-long oral argument with Justice Bannister and lawyers for the Wildlife Conservation Society which operates the Bronx Zoo.

“We are grateful to Justice Bannister for carefully considering our arguments as to why Happy’s case should move forward,” said Stein.

The NhRP secured the world’s first habeas corpus hearing involving a nonhuman animal in 2015 in its case on behalf of imprisoned chimpanzees Hercules and Leo, who are now residing in a sanctuary in Georgia. The organization filed its habeas corpus petition on behalf of Happy on Oct. 2nd, 2018.

In May of this year, New York Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Fahey wrote in a concurring opinion in the NhRP’s chimpanzee rights cases on behalf of Tommy and Kiko that “the issue whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching,” and that “there is no doubt that (a chimpanzee) is not a thing.” In June, New York’s Fourth Judicial Department, of which the Orleans County Supreme Court is a part, cited to the NhRP’s case on behalf of Kiko in People v. Graves, writing, “[I]t is common knowledge that personhood [i.e. the capacity to bear legal rights] can and sometimes does attach to nonhuman entities like … animals.”

NhRP President Steven M. Wise and other members of the NhRP legal team are available for select interviews. To make a request or for more information about the Dec. 14 hearing, contact Karen Hinton ( or Lauren Choplin ( Visit Happy’s client page for more information about her history, her court case, and links to all legal documents.

Media Contacts:

Karen Hinton

Lauren Choplin

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About the Nonhuman Rights Project
Founded in 1996 by attorney Steven M. Wise, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) works to secure legally recognized fundamental rights for nonhuman animals through litigation, advocacy, and education. Our mission is to change the legal status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere “things,” which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to “persons,” who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them. Our current plaintiffs are members of species who have been scientifically proven to be autonomous: currently, great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales. We are working with teams of attorneys on four continents to develop campaigns to achieve legal rights for nonhuman animals that are suited to the legal systems of these countries. We filed our first cases in December of 2013, and our work is the subject of the 2016 Pennebaker Hegedus/HBO documentary film Unlocking the Cage, which has been seen by millions around the world.

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