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Why Happy needs and deserves sanctuary

By Lauren Choplin

Thank you so much to everyone who has joined the effort to free our elephant client Happy to a sanctuary, whether by completing our action alert, attending our Rally For Happy’s Freedom this past Saturday in the Bronx, or sharing her story on social media. We are aware that the Director of the Bronx Zoo, Jim Breheny, recently emailed NhRP supporters to try to justify the zoo’s decision to continue to imprison Happy and deprive her of necessary companionship with other elephants. Unsurprisingly, his email omitted critical details about the zoo’s imprisonment of Happy that tell a completely different story about who Happy is, how imprisonment in a zoo is harming her, and who she can be.

In short: there is no credible reason the Bronx Zoo can’t release Happy to a sanctuary.

We find it deeply troubling that Mr. Breheny claims Happy “doesn’t get along with other elephants” and therefore shouldn’t be moved to a sanctuary—as if not getting along with other elephants is an unchangeable part of her personality and not a direct result of her imprisonment. Happy’s own history at the Bronx Zoo shows she can form bonds with members of her own species. Absent from Mr. Breheny’s account is the fact that Happy lived with her elephant companion Grumpy for 25 years until the Bronx Zoo euthanized her in 2002 following an attack by elephants Patty and Maxine. Happy then lived with a younger elephant named Sammie (who was transferred from another zoo) for four years until the Bronx Zoo euthanized her when she suffered kidney failure.

Sadly, these two relationships are among the very few opportunities Happy has had to socialize with other elephants over the 40 years she has been imprisoned at the Bronx Zoo. Understandably, Happy might not get along with Patty, but this doesn’t mean she doesn’t get along with other elephants.

In sanctuaries, elephants with histories even worse than Happy’s have thrived because, for the first time in years, they have ample space to roam, socialize, and make choices about where to go and with whom. As the Global Sanctuary for Elephants writes of its elephant residents Maia and Guida, “When someone tells you that an elephant is antisocial or doesn’t get along with other elephants and they are in a zoo or circus, always keep in mind they are a product of their environment. When given space, understanding and the ability and comfort to simply walk far away, they are able to rediscover what it means to be a herd member and how big of a part of being an elephant it truly is.”

Mr. Breheny claims Happy is provided with “expert care based on species-specific requirements,” but some of the most experienced elephant experts in the world—in the affidavits they submitted in support of Happy’s right to liberty and release to a sanctuary—make clear that the Bronx Zoo’s exhibit is, in fact, unable to meet the biological, physical, and psychological needs of elephants. Happy’s keepers may care about and may have bonded with her over the years. However, they are no substitute for the companionship of members of her own species, and they can’t remedy the core problem—the exhibit’s undeniably small size, which prevents Happy from living anything close to the normal life of an elephant.

Although Mr. Breheny claims the Bronx Zoo’s exhibit has “[m]any of the features” attributed to sanctuaries, the reality is that the exhibit is barely larger than a single acre and broken up into small barren enclosures. In the winter months when it’s too cold for any elephants to be outside, Happy and Patty (the other elephant remaining in the exhibit following the euthanization of Maxine in November) are confined in an even smaller industrial holding facility. In comparison, elephants who live in the AZA-certified Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee can roam freely in one of three areas that comprise a 2,700-acre habitat with year-round access to the outdoors, including spring-fed lakes, pastures, and woodlands.

The Bronx Zoo’s exhibit comes nowhere close to providing Happy with the freedom, enrichment, and opportunity for healing that a sanctuary can. Sanctuaries like the Performing Animal Welfare Society ARK 2000 (PAWS) and the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee have extensive experience with transporting and caring for elephants from young to old, with various health issues and from various backgrounds. As elephant expert Dr. Joyce Poole writes in her response to similar arguments made by Mr. Breheny in his affidavit:

Breheny … appears to be unaware of the extremely positive transformations that have taken place when captive elephants are given the freedom that larger space in sanctuaries or release back to the wild offer … The claims in relation to Happy, that she does not do well with change; that she will not survive the transport; that a transfer to a sanctuary will be too stressful; that she doesn’t know how to socialize; that her unique personality is problematic, have been disproven … In fact, elephants with serious physical or psychological problems in zoos have usually become more normal functioning elephants when given more space in a sanctuary.

In 2006, the Bronx Zoo told The New York Times it would be “inhumane” to sustain an exhibit with a single elephant. Yet this is exactly what they’re doing by deciding to sentence Happy and Patty to life imprisonment, with each elephant alone in different parts of the tiny exhibit.

Inarguably, elephants need ample space to roam and make choices about where to go, what to do, and with whom. Happy doesn’t have any of these opportunities at the Bronx Zoo, and she deserves to live the life that is only possible for her in a sanctuary.

With your help, we’ll keep fighting for her right to live freely. Thank you once again for taking action on her behalf. Please feel free to let us know if you have any questions about Happy’s case and why we’re working to secure her release to a sanctuary. We’re always here to answer them.

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