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Press release

Statement on New York Court of Appeals Decision in Historic Elephant Rights Case

June 14, 2022, New York, NY–Below is a statement from the Nonhuman Rights Project on the New York Court of Appeals’ decision in our elephant client Happy’s case.

We applaud the powerful dissents by the Honorable Judges Jenny Rivera and Rowan D. Wilson, which we see as a tremendous victory in a national and global struggle for nonhuman animal rights which we’ve only just begun.

They follow similarly supportive arguments made by the Honorable Judge Eugene M. Fahey in our chimpanzee rights cases before he retired from the Court in January of 2022. Judges Rivera, Wilson, and Fahey join a growing body of judges from around the world who are considering and recognizing nonhuman animals as rights-holders, and we look forward to citing these dissents in our elephant rights case already underway in California and in the new cases we’ll file across the US and in other countries in the coming months. We have persuaded three judges on New York’s highest court since 2018; we know we’ll persuade more.

At the same time, this is not just a loss for Happy, whose freedom was at stake in this case and who remains imprisoned in a Bronx Zoo exhibit. It’s also a loss for everyone who cares about upholding and strengthening our most cherished values and principles of justice–autonomy, liberty, equality, and fairness–and ensuring our legal system is free of arbitrary reasoning and that no one is denied basic rights simply because of who they are.

As Justice Wilson wrote, “When the majority answers, “No, animals cannot have rights,” I worry for that animal, but I worry even more greatly about how that answer denies and denigrates the human capacity for understanding, empathy and compassion.”

With the support of diverse, renowned experts in law, philosophy, religion, elephant cognition, social justice, and more, we sought Happy’s legal personhood and right to liberty under New York common law, which is judge-made law that’s meant to evolve with the times. We lament that the Court chose not to do its clear common law duty in this case by bringing Happy’s legal status into the 21st century. In this respect, the majority of the Court appears to be out of touch with the times and has demonstrated a deep misunderstanding of what Happy’s case is about.

The fact remains that Happy deserves to live freely and with peace and dignity in the vastly larger, more natural environment of a sanctuary designed to respect elephant autonomy. Judge Rivera is right when she wrote in her dissent that “a gilded cage is still a cage. Happy may be a dignified creature, but there is nothing dignified about her captivity.” That’s why we’ll continue our grassroots campaign for her release at the same time as we consider our legal options and next steps in New York. We’ll provide further analysis of the decision and dissents in the coming days.

What’s clear right now is that these dissents, as well as the fact that Happy had a hearing in the highest court of the state in which she’s been imprisoned for half a century, offer tremendous hope for a future where elephants no longer suffer as Happy has and where nonhuman rights are protected alongside human rights. This is the first time the highest court of an English-speaking jurisdiction has heard a case demanding a legal right for a nonhuman animal. It will be far from the last. To everyone in New York and around the world who’ve joined us in calling for Happy’s right to liberty, thank you for helping us build this future, step by step, case by case, for as long as it takes–for Happy and for all autonomous beings who are deprived of their freedom.

CASE NO./NAME: THE NONHUMAN RIGHTS PROJECT, INC. on behalf of HAPPY, Petitioner, v. JAMES J. BREHENY, in his official capacity as 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 (Appellate Case No. 2020-02581)

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