Bronx Court Hears Third Day of Arguments in Elephant Rights Case
The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is demanding recognition of Happy the elephant’s legal personhood and right to liberty followed by her release from the Bronx Zoo to a sanctuary
Happy’s habeas corpus case “is not just about the cause of one poor elephant. It is about the cause of liberty,” the NhRP argued in the Bronx Supreme Court today
Jan. 6, 2020—Bronx, NY—Today the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) argued for a third time in the Bronx Supreme Court in support of the right to liberty of an elephant named Happy who is held alone in captivity at the Bronx Zoo.
With today’s proceedings lasting over three hours, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt has now heard approximately 13 hours of arguments on the merits of Happy’s historic elephant rights case, including hearings in September and October of 2019.
As the NhRP’s president and lead attorney, Steven M. Wise, told the Court today, Happy’s case “is not just about the cause of one poor elephant. It is about the cause of liberty.”
The NhRP is asking the Bronx Supreme Court to recognize Happy as a legal person with the fundamental right to liberty protected by the common law writ of habeas corpus and to then order her release to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee (TES) or the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary (PAWS). Currently, Happy is held alone in an industrial cement structure lined with windowless, barred cages (the zoo’s “elephant barn”) while the Bronx Zoo’s elephant exhibit is closed for the winter.
In an in-depth critique of the affidavits submitted in support of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the Bronx Zoo and insists that Happy is “happy where she is,” Wise pointed out that only the NhRP has the support of actual elephant experts, including Dr. Joyce Poole and Dr. Cynthia Moss. These experts make clear that Happy, like all elephants, wants and needs to live freely—including having the opportunity to meaningfully interact with other members of her species—and she cannot do so in the Bronx Zoo’s elephant exhibit.
Today’s arguments also focused on the difference between animal welfare and nonhuman animal rights. Wise emphasized how the injustice of Happy’s situation isn’t about whether the Bronx Zoo is violating any animal welfare laws or the minimal standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Rather, it’s about whether the Bronx Zoo is unlawfully imprisoning Happy and violating her right to liberty as an autonomous being.
“The judge was very interested in Happy’s surroundings—what we believe make her ‘happy’ or not,” said NhRP attorney Elizabeth Stein. Both Stein and Wise thought the arguments went “very well” as a result of Justice Tuitt’s continued attentiveness to the core issues in Happy’s case, such as who counts as a legal person with rights and how sanctuaries like TES and PAWS are fundamentally different from the Bronx Zoo because they are built to respect elephants’ autonomy.
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 another New York trial court issued the NhRP’s requested habeas corpus order. In early 2019, that court transferred her case to the Bronx.
Alongside the NhRP’s litigation, its grassroots advocacy campaign on behalf of Happy has gained significant momentum, drawing the support of influential public figures such as Queen guitarist Brian May, elected officials such as New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and animal advocates in New York and around the world. A Change.org petition calling for Happy’s release from solitary confinement has over a million signatures and continues to grow. In October, Mayor Bill de Blasio commented on Happy’s plight, telling WNYC “something doesn’t feel right” about keeping Happy in the Bronx Zoo.
“While we don’t know how Justice Tuitt will rule, the fact that the justice system is treating Happy as it would an imprisoned human being is in itself a legal victory for nonhuman animals,” said Stein.
Happy’s case is the second the NhRP has filed on behalf of elephants. On Jan. 8th, the Connecticut Appellate Court will hear arguments in the NhRP’s elephant rights case on behalf of Minnie, the sole surviving elephant held captive in a traveling circus called the Commerford Zoo.
“In Connecticut, New York, and across the US, elephants are suffering because they live as prisoners in traveling circuses and zoos in tiny, inappropriate environments that don’t allow them to exercise their autonomy,” Wise said following September oral arguments in Happy’s case and the news that Beulah and Karen, two elephants formerly in the custody of the Commerford Zoo, had died. “They deserve freedom and justice.”
Justice Tuitt will issue a written decision at a later date, likely in the next several months.
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 (Bronx County Index No. 260441/2019)
For more information, visit Happy’s court case page.
About the Nonhuman Rights Project
The Nonhuman Rights Project is the only civil rights organization in the United States working through litigation, legislation, and education to secure fundamental rights for nonhuman animals.