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Nonhuman Rights Project Argues for Elephant Personhood, Rights in New York Supreme Court

By Lauren Choplin

Nonhuman Rights Project Argues for Elephant Personhood, Rights in New York Supreme Court

~ The habeas corpus hearing is the first time a US court has heard oral arguments on an elephant’s legal personhood and right to bodily liberty ~

Dec. 14, 2018—Albion, NY—The New York Supreme Court, Orleans County heard oral arguments today in a landmark elephant rights case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) on behalf of a 47-year-old Asian elephant named Happy held alone in captivity at the Bronx Zoo. The proceeding was the world’s first habeas corpus hearing on behalf of an elephant and the second habeas corpus hearing on behalf of a nonhuman animal in the US, both of which were secured by the NhRP.

In a 20-minute opening statement before Justice Tracey A. Bannister, Steven M. Wise, the lead attorney for and president of the NhRP, argued that Happy, as an autonomous being, is a legal person with the fundamental right to bodily liberty protected by a common law writ of habeas corpus.

Nodding as Wise spoke, Justice Bannister listened carefully as Wise detailed some of what the NhRP laid out in its Reply Memorandum of Law (filed on Dec. 11th). Nonhuman animal personhood, i.e. nonhuman animals’ capacity to bear at least one legal right, is consistent with over two centuries of New York law, Wise said. New York’s pet trust statute implicitly recognizes companion animals as legal persons with the capacity to be the beneficiary of a trust, and the New York courts, including a judge on New York’s highest court, have recently embraced nonhuman legal personhood as “common knowledge” and “a deep dilemma of ethics and policy that demands our attention.”

The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo and was represented in the proceedings by Phillips Lytle LLP, argued in its opening statement that the NhRP had not properly alleged violations of an animal welfare statute, that the Zoo had no intention of transferring Happy, and that the case should be heard in Bronx County, the location of the Bronx Zoo.

In a rebuttal, Wise said that by issuing the NhRP’s requested Order to Show Cause, Justice Bannister had already ruled that the venue in which the NhRP filed suit was proper and that she had already had the opportunity to change the venue when she had made the filings returnable to Orleans County. The NhRP makes clear in its court filings that, according to New York habeas corpus procedure, the NhRP could file in any county in New York regardless of where the imprisoned person is located and that the NhRP filed suit in Orleans County because the Fourth Judicial Department of which that Court is a part had correctly rejected tying legal personhood to being human.

Saying that she had “always enjoyed elephants,” Justice Bannister ended the hearing by indicating that she would likely grant the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Motion to have the case heard in Bronx County. The NhRP awaits the actual order and will determine its next steps after it has an opportunity to review it. The NhRP’s options include having the case heard in Bronx County, seeking to have Happy’s case heard in another County, and/or appealing the decision to the Fourth Department appellate court in Rochester.

“We will have to wait to be certain what Judge Bannister has decided to do concerning venue,” said NhRP attorney Elizabeth Stein after the hearing, “but the NhRP appreciates Justice Bannister’s careful and respectful hearing of our arguments and we look forward to deciding our next steps to secure Happy’s release.”

In November, Justice Bannister issued the NhRP’s requested “Order to Show Cause” pursuant to a writ of habeas corpus. With support from world-renowned elephant experts, including Joyce Poole, Cynthia Moss, Lucy Bates, Richard Byrne, and Karen McComb, the NhRP filed a habeas corpus petition in October seeking Happy’s immediate release from her imprisonment and 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.

“The Bronx Zoo imprisons Happy in a tiny, cold, lonely, un-elephant-friendly, and unnatural place that ignores her autonomy as well as her social, emotional, and bodily liberty needs,” the NhRP writes in its Memorandum of Law, “while daily inflicting further injury upon her that would be remedied by transferring her to any American elephant sanctuary.”

Happy is the NhRP’s fourth elephant client. Learn more about her case and read our court filings here, including a second supplemental affidavit filed by elephant expert Joyce Poole. To request an interview with NhRP President Steven M. Wise, email NhRP Communications Director Lauren Choplin at 

CASE NO./NAME: 18-45164/“THE NONHUMAN RIGHTS PROJECT, INC., on behalf of HAPPY, Petitioner, against JAMES J. BREHENY, in his official capacity as the Executive Vice President and General Director of Zoos and Aquariums of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Director of the Bronx Zoo, and WILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY.

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 fundamental rights for nonhuman animals through litigation, legislation, and education. 

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