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The Struggle to Gain an Elephant’s Right to Bodily Liberty

By Steven Wise

Remarks by NhRP President and Founder Steven M. Wise

Delivered at a rally to #FreeHappy before Happy’s historic hearing in New York’s highest court

May 18, 2022
Academy Park
Albany, New York

Everything decent, everything righteous, evolves—sometimes quickly, sometimes slow. For centuries, English-speaking humans were considered to be legal things, not legal persons with any rights. It took numerous struggles, for example, to finally decide that all humans were “persons” with rights, irrespective of race or color.

But a million species of nonhuman animals have been considered things, not persons. They were never rationally distinguished nor carefully studied, generally seen to be the same, undistinguished, and misunderstood. However, less than two hundred years ago human understanding of the cognition, intelligence, emotions, and social lives of a light dusting of species of nonhuman animals, such as elephants and chimpanzees, began to evolve. Sixty years ago scientists began to deeply study them.

Thirty-seven years ago we decided to obtain a common law right for imprisoned chimpanzees and elephants. The common law was chosen because it allows English-speaking courts to make small and discreet, but important and vital, changes that reflect an evolving sense of morality and ethics, public policy, religion, liberty, and equality.

It would require decades of legal research, teaching, article and book writing, and lecturing.

In 2013 the Nonhuman Rights Project began filing lawsuits demanding the legal right to bodily liberty for a nonhuman animal. They began in New York on behalf of chimpanzees. We were not expecting to win. And we lost every time. But we were beginning the process that would, in time, lead to success.

Today, we are litigating on behalf of the elephant named Happy. Zoos claim that granting her the right to bodily liberty will result in an “uprooting of the entire social order,” will “upend a state’s legal system,” and inflict “extensive and far-reaching consequences,” with “significant economic consequences.”

To make such arguments against elephants having the right to bodily liberty is not merely irrational; it is historically dangerous and echoes a long, deeply regrettable, history of biases.

One of many classic judicial biases was illustrated by the U.S. Supreme Court, which stated that all Black people, slave and free, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” solely because they were Black and not white. But that was good, said the masters, for Blacks benefit vastly more from being enslaved than being free. In reality, of course, only the master benefitted from human slavery.

Sadly, the Bronx Zoo’s history of bias is not limited to Happy. In 1906, the Bronx Zoo forced Ota Benga, an African pygmy man, to be displayed in “one of the best rooms in the primate house.” The Zoo was “quite pleased” as attendance doubled, with Ota’s imprisonment, “becoming a draw on the order of magnitude of Coney Island.”

Until the detention was forcibly stopped.

The Bronx Zoo Director said that Ota Benga could have lived happily there for the rest of his life. Except he would kill himself. It would not be until 2020, one hundred and fourteen years later, two years after Happy’s case was filed against the Bronx Zoo that the Zoo would finally apologize.

Now, Happy’s enslavement is grounded upon the single, irrelevant trait of being a grey elephant, and not a human being.

But scientists around the world have obtained increasingly powerful elephant data that focus on their natural and intrinsic nature and steadily reveal who they actually are. They have come to vividly understand that elephants possess complicated learning abilities that allows them to use a wide variety of gestures and calls, to consciously plan how to live, share their lives, knowledge, information, and thoughts just as humans do, cooperate in innovative problem-solving, remember long-term issues, teach, and build coalitions. They deeply understand that a sprinkling of species, such as chimpanzees and elephants, exist who are remarkably autonomous, wildly cognitively complex, nearly unique.

As a result, some judges began to suggest that we should win. Victory, once so far back as to be unthinkable, began creeping up. Legal evolution was beginning.

Three times we could not persuade New York’s highest court to hear our chimpanzee appeals. Then a thoughtful Court of Appeals judge asked in 2018:

Does an intelligent nonhuman animal who thinks and plans and appreciates life as human beings do have the right to the protection of the law against arbitrary cruelties and  enforced detentions visited on him or her? This is not merely a definitional question, but  a deep dilemma of ethics and policy that demands our attention. To treat a chimpanzee as if he or she had no rights to liberty protected by habeas corpus is to regard her as entirely lacking independent worth, as a mere resource for human use, a thing the value of which consists exclusively in its usefulness to others. Instead, we should consider whether a chimpanzee is an individual with inherent value who has the right to be treated with respect.

Another lawsuit was brought. The trial court stated that it “recognizes that Happy is an extraordinary animal with complex cognitive abilities, an intelligent being with advanced analytic abilities akin to human beings … Happy is more than just a legal thing. She is an intelligent autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty.”

“Regrettably,” however, the court felt it had to rule against this elephant.

Fifty state high courts exist in the United States. Yet none has yet decided whether a nonhuman animal who thinks and plans and appreciates life as do human beings has the right to be protected against enforced detentions.

Now New York’s highest court has agreed to hear our fourth request appealing the lower court’s refusal of an elephant’s right to bodily liberty.

Whether Happy wins, or loses, New York’s Court of Appeals’ decision will be America’s first on the foremost nonhuman animal rights issue of our time. There will be many more. Winston Churchill once remarked on an initial victory that occurred after years of defeat: “Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning to the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Working hard, he eventually found the end of the beginning, then the beginning of the end, and finally, the end. So will elephants.

Find all the latest on the fight for Happy’s freedom and ways to take action on our #FreeHappy campaign page.

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