Bronx Court Hears Arguments in Support of Elephant Rights
Sept. 23, 2019—The Bronx, NY—Today the Bronx County Supreme Court heard oral arguments for nearly five hours in a historic elephant rights case filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) on behalf of Happy, a 48-year-old Asian elephant held alone in captivity at the Bronx Zoo, with a second hearing scheduled for October.
Both the duration and substance of today’s hearing were unique for arguments on preliminary motions, with Justice Alison Y. Tuitt providing the NhRP with ample time to delve into the most pressing issues in Happy’s case, such as who counts as a legal person with rights and why Happy—as a autonomous being—is entitled to the fundamental right to liberty and must be released to a sanctuary.
Just before the Bronx County Supreme Court was set to close for the day, Justice Tuitt scheduled a second hearing for Oct. 21st to allow for argument on the remaining motions as well as the core merits of Happy’s habeas corpus petition.
“Justice Tuitt took an incredible amount of time to truly listen to our arguments,” said NhRP attorney Elizabeth Stein. “It’s clear from the probing questions she asked of both sides that she truly wants to understand and is taking extremely seriously both the relevant procedural questions and the merits of Happy’s case.”
In the course of the proceedings, Stein argued why the Bronx Zoo and the organization that manages it, the Wildlife Conservation Society, cannot legally seek to have Happy’s case dismissed without a pending motion. NhRP President and attorney Steven M. Wise then presented in full the background not just of Happy’s case but also the issues raised by the NhRP’s New York chimpanzee rights cases, which a judge on New York’s highest court last year called “a deep dilemma of ethics and policy that demands our attention.”
The Bronx Zoo wrongly claims the New York appellate courts decided these cases on the merits, Wise explained, whereas such a dismissal occurred in only one instance in a ruling that is neither legally correct nor binding on the Bronx County Supreme Court. Issued in 2014 by the Third Judicial Department in captive chimpanzees Tommy’s and Kiko’s cases, this ruling asserted that to be a legal person with even a single legal right you have to be able to bear duties and responsibilities, an argument the Bronx Zoo has taken up in its filings as part of its efforts to claim “Happy is Happy where she is,” in the words of Kenneth A. Manning, counsel for the Bronx Zoo.
In addition to being the first elephant to have a habeas corpus hearing to determine the lawfulness of her imprisonment, Happy is the first elephant in the world to demonstrate self-awareness via the mirror self-recognition test. She is confined alone in a small enclosure that contains a one-acre outdoor yard, barren corrals, and an industrial holding facility. In the winter months, when it’s too cold for her to be outside, she is confined to an industrial cement structure that is lined with windowless, barred cages. She has lived in the exhibit since 1977.
Earlier this year, the Orleans County Supreme Court transferred Happy’s case to Bronx County after it held a widely covered habeas corpus hearing in which the NhRP argued for recognition of Happy’s legal personhood and fundamental right to liberty. This was the first such hearing on behalf of an elephant in legal history.
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 2015, the NhRP secured the world’s first habeas corpus hearing on behalf of a nonhuman animal in its chimpanzee rights case on behalf of Hercules and Leo, who were used in locomotion research at Stony Brook University. They now reside in a chimpanzee sanctuary.
The NhRP is optimistic both about today’s hearing on the motions and the habeas corpus hearing scheduled for October.
“We’re off to a good start in the Bronx, and we look forward to returning to argue for Happy’s liberty and long overdue release to a sanctuary,” said NhRP Executive Director and attorney Kevin Schneider.
Today’s hearing took place a week after one of the NhRP’s Connecticut elephant clients, Beulah, collapsed and died at the Big E fair in Massachusetts.
“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. “They deserve freedom and justice.”
For a detailed timeline of Happy’s case and court filings, visit this page.
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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.