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Happy Never Had a Choice

By Elizabeth Stein

Below is a lightly edited transcript of a speech by NhRP Staff Attorney Elizabeth Stein at the Nonhuman Rights Project’s April 30th rally to #FreeHappy at the Bronx Zoo. Join us May 18th in Albany, New York for a Historic Hearing and Rally in Happy’s Elephant Rights Case.

As Courtney said, thank you for joining us here today to call for Happy’s freedom from her unjust and immoral imprisonment.

I’m a lawyer for the Nonhuman Rights Project but more importantly I’m Happy’s lawyer. I’m also a mother and grandmother. In the years I’ve worked on Happy’s case, I’ve often gone back and forth between watching over my grandchildren and arguing strategy and poring over briefs with my fellow lawyers at the NhRP. Especially in those moments of overlap, I think of Happy, who will never be a mother, who never had a choice. She lost her family, home, and freedom half a century ago and even more since then. The moment she was torn from her natural habitat to become a safari attraction, and then, a zoo exhibit, her life as an elephant ended. We’re fighting for her to get it back.

We know so much about who elephants are and what they need to survive and thrive. A barren zoo exhibit is not it. Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Tuitt understood this when she called Happy’s existence at the Bronx Zoo her “plight” and agreed with the Nonhuman Rights Project that Happy is more than just a thing. That she is “an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty.” And that “the arguments advanced by the NhRP are extremely persuasive for transferring Happy from her solitary, lonely one-acre exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, to an elephant sanctuary on a 2300 acre lot.”

As the most renowned elephant experts in the world concluded, Happy needs and wants to make choices about how to spend her days and live her life and suffers physically and emotionally having been stripped of her ability to do so. We know what it is like to be isolated from our family and friends. We lived through two years of a pandemic that crushed us emotionally and physically. But we can now experience the joy of freedom. Happy still cannot.

For me personally, and I imagine for many of you, Happy’s case is as much about the impoverished life Happy has been made to endure as it is the world we’ll leave to our children and grandchildren.

I often ask myself: What are we teaching our children and grandchildren if we allow Happy to be treated as nothing more than a rightless thing who is here solely for the pleasure of human beings?

Isn’t it our duty to teach our children and grandchildren that the world must be defined by respect for freedom and dignity, no matter who you are? That when we protect the most vulnerable, we are all stronger for it.

A world where we make decisions at all levels based on justice, science, and the interconnectedness of life on earth.

A world in which we don’t allow fear—fear of “the other,” fear of the loss of the status quo, fear of change and uncertainty—sway how we treat other beings and make public policy.

As Evan Wolfson and Shannon Minter stated in their amicus brief in support of Happy: Rights are not defined by who are denied them.

As long as rights continue to be irrationally and arbitrarily denied, we’ll live in a world where respect for freedom and dignity rings hollow because it won’t reach beings like Happy.

The Honorable Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Fahey understood this when he wrote, in part addressing his fellow New York judges, that “the issue [of] 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.”

With your help, we have shined a bright light on the injustice of Happy’s imprisonment and are now preparing to argue her case before New York’s highest court, which will consider for the first time whether a nonhuman animal can have a legal right. This court has the power and duty to correct an unspeakable wrong and help make the world–at least, New York–what it should be for all.

Let’s not forget that this Court accepts fewer than five percent of the cases that are requested to be heard, which demonstrates the urgent public importance of Happy’s case.

We’ll be demanding, as we have done since 2018, recognition of her right to liberty, followed by her release to a sanctuary where she can live with freedom, peace, and dignity for the first time in 50 years. We’ll do so with the hope and expectation that a century from now, no elephant will be made to suffer as Happy has.

You’re an important part of this fight, and we’d love for you to join us again in Albany on May 18th for this historic hearing and another rally outside the courthouse.

Thank you for joining us today to rally for Happy’s freedom!

To watch the April 30th rally speeches by NhRP Attorney Elizabeth Stein and NhRP Director of Government Relations and Campaigns Courtney Fern, visit our Facebook pageFor a detailed timeline of Happy’s case, court filings, and decisions, visit this page. Find all the latest on the fight for Happy’s freedom and ways to take action on our new Free Happy campaign page.

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