Over the course of three days between September of 2019 and January of 2020, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt heard over 13 hours of arguments on the question of whether our client Happy—an elephant who has been imprisoned in the Bronx Zoo for over 40 years—is entitled to the legal right to be released from her imprisonment and sent to an elephant sanctuary. On Feb. 18, 2020, Justice Tuitt issued a decision that powerfully supports the Nonhuman Rights Project’s arguments and brings us one step closer to securing liberty and justice for Happy and other nonhuman animals.
Why this decision is important, both to Happy and the fight for nonhuman animal rights
- Justice Tuitt’s decision shows that after six years of litigation by the Nonhuman Rights Project, the anachronistic legal idea that all nonhuman animals are legal “things” with no rights is beginning to crumble in New York State.
- Justice Tuitt recognized Happy as an autonomous being and rejected the Bronx Zoo’s arguments that it’s in Happy’s best interest to remain imprisoned in the Bronx Zoo.
- Justice Tuitt’s decision is the first necessary step in bringing Happy’s habeas corpus petition before an appellate court that isn’t bound by prior appellate decisions in our chimpanzee rights cases (as Justice Tuitt believed her Court to be) and can order her release from the Bronx Zoo to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
Understandably, some people have wondered how this decision could be a sign of progress given that Happy is still imprisoned. Happy’s freedom is of the utmost importance to the NhRP—beyond any courtroom battle, beyond the larger fight for fundamental change in how our legal systems view and treat nonhuman animals—which is why we’ve repeatedly offered to drop the case if the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the Bronx Zoo, were to agree to release Happy to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. So far the Wildlife Conservation Society has refused our offers. We join our supporters in denouncing her continued imprisonment.
At the same time, Justice Tuitt’s decision offers hope to those who believe Happy deserves the legal right to live freely and the opportunity to heal and thrive in a sanctuary. Here is a more detailed breakdown of what we see as especially significant about Justice Tuitt’s decision:
- While Justice Tuitt isn’t the first judge to hear arguments on the merits of our cases, she is the first to allot such an extraordinary amount of time to rigorously consider whether a nonhuman animal is a legal person with the fundamental right to liberty. Justice Tuitt thereby treated the question of a nonhuman animal’s legal personhood and rights as “a deep dilemma of ethics and policy that demands our attention,” as New York Court of Appeals Justice Eugene Fahey rightly urged the New York courts to do in his 2018 concurring opinion in our chimpanzee rights cases.
- Justice Tuitt’s decision aligns with Justice Fahey’s opinion in another significant way. Just as Justice Fahey concluded “(w)hile it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person,’ there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing” (note that Justice Fahey did not say it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is a legal thing) Justice Tuitt concluded Happy “is more than just a legal thing, or property. She is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty.”
- Justice Tuitt found that Happy is “an extraordinary animal with complex cognitive abilities, an intelligent being with advanced analytical abilities akin to human beings” 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.” A crucial part of the NhRP’s work is to make visible the suffering our clients endure when their right to liberty isn’t respected, as demonstrated by the affidavits submitted in support of the NhRP by the world’s greatest elephant experts. Justice Tuitt agrees with the NhRP that Happy doesn’t belong at the Bronx Zoo, where she’s deprived of her ability to exercise her autonomy in meaningful ways, including the freedom to choose where to go, what to do, and with whom to be.
- As detailed above, Justice Tuitt’s decision vindicates the legal arguments and factual claims we’ve been making on behalf of Happy and other autonomous nonhuman animals for six years. However, Justice Tuitt did not recognize Happy’s legal personhood and order Happy’s release to a sanctuary because she felt bound by appellate court decisions in our chimpanzee rights cases. Justice Fahey has already written that those appellate decisions were wrongly decided—just as the NhRP has always maintained. We now intend to persuade these same appellate courts to agree with Justice Fahey and then to recognize Happy as a legal person with the right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus.
What happens next
We’ve just notified the Bronx Supreme Court that we’re appealing to the First Judicial Department, where we look forward to filing our brief and arguing before that court as soon as possible. Justice Tuitt’s decision puts us in a strong position from which to again argue the merits of Happy’s case—i.e. Happy’s right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus—without having to spend precious argument time focused on procedural grounds for dismissal. As we’ll reiterate, the First Department isn’t bound by prior, legally erroneous decisions in our chimpanzee rights cases. We hope the panel of judges that will next hear Happy’s case will do as Justice Fahey has urged and “confront [the] manifest injustice” of our client’s thinghood and rightlessness. If they fail to do so, we will move on to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, where Justice Fahey sits.
Alongside our litigation, we expect that our grassroots advocacy campaign to #FreeHappy will continue to gain momentum, with Justice Tuitt’s decision reinforcing the case we’re making to elected officials, decision-makers, and the public at large about why she must be released to a sanctuary.
A reminder of what the fight to free Happy is all about
We know how easy it is to get locked into seeing this (or any social justice) lawsuit in binary terms: did you win or lose? Is Happy free or not? At its core, Happy’s case is about an autonomous nonhuman being who needs freedom, just as human beings do, and suffers every day she’s without it. As we all sit with the pain of knowing Happy remains imprisoned, it’s important to remember that, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Justice Tuitt’s decision is a sign of tremendous progress in the fight for fundamental rights for Happy and other autonomous nonhuman animals, and this fight doesn’t end here—far from it.
Happy made history in 2005 as the first elephant to demonstrate self-awareness via the mirror test, and in December of 2018 she became the first elephant in the world to have a habeas corpus hearing after the Orleans Supreme Court issued the NhRP’s requested habeas corpus order. In early 2019, the Orleans Supreme Court transferred her case to the Bronx. For a detailed timeline of Happy’s case and court filings, visit this page. To help #FreeHappy, visit her grassroots advocacy campaign page.