Nonhuman Rights Project Wins Order, Argues for Elephant Rights in Bronx Court
Bronx, NY, Oct. 21, 2019—Arguments in support of the right to liberty of an elephant named Happy—held alone in captivity at the Bronx Zoo—were heard for a second time today in the Bronx Supreme Court, with the Nonhuman Rights Project again winning an order from Justice Alison Y. Tuitt requiring the Bronx Zoo not to move Happy.
“We think it went exceedingly well,” said Elizabeth Stein, an attorney with the NhRP, which last year filed a common law habeas corpus petition on Happy’s behalf, seeking recognition of her legal personhood and right to liberty, followed by her release to an elephant sanctuary. “The judge was engaged; she was thoughtful. She asked terrific questions. It’s clear she had given a tremendous amount of thought to our first hearing.”
The nearly four-hour-long proceedings focused primarily on the merits of Happy’s elephant rights case—Happy’s legal personhood and right to liberty, why the capacity for rights isn’t and never has been limited to human beings, and why Happy, as an autonomous being, should be released to a sanctuary where her right to liberty will be respected.
At one point, Justice Tuitt asked Steven M. Wise, an attorney with and president of the NhRP, “What indication is there that Happy is unhappy?” Wise responded that the Bronx Zoo’s filings regarding Happy’s supposed physical health “only focus on Happy as a machine. They say nothing about her emotional contentedness.”
Urging Justice Tuitt to bear in mind the many historical cases that “have always led to bad places because they are based on sheer bias” and not to rule against Happy simply because she is an elephant, NhRP President Steven M. Wise emphasized autonomy as a supreme value of the courts, meant to be protected wherever it is found, regardless of species: “That’s what habeas corpus is about.”
Legal counsel for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the Bronx Zoo, argued in support of Happy remaining a rightless being or “legal thing,” as opposed to a legal person with the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus.
In response to WCS’s claims that Happy’s case was about the NhRP’s organizational interests, not Happy’s interests, the NhRP reiterated that it had long ago offered to drop the case if the Bronx Zoo would agree to release Happy to one of two currently operational US elephant sanctuaries, both of which are founded on the principle of restoring to formerly imprisoned elephants as much freedom as possible: the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee or the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary. So far, WCS has refused to do so, claiming “Happy is Happy where she is.”
“At a sanctuary, she will live an entirely different life—the life her genes tell her to,” Wise told the judge.
As noted by world-renowned elephant expert Dr. Joyce Poole, who studied videos of Happy at the Bronx Zoo and submitted three affidavits in support of Happy’s release, Happy has engaged in unnatural behavior indicative of distress and suffering, including “swinging her trunk in stereotypic behavior, [and] standing with one or two legs lifted off the ground, either to take weight off painful, diseased feet or again engaging in stereotypic behavior.” More fundamentally, Dr. Poole writes that because elephants are cognitively, emotionally, and socially complex beings “who have evolved to move,” they often develop serious physical and emotional problems when forced to live in isolation in small spaces. She specifically states that the Bronx Zoo’s exhibit is, in fact, unable to meet Happy’s biological, physical, and psychological needs.
The oral arguments took place just before the elephant exhibit will close for the winter, at which point Happy will be held in an industrial cement structure lined with windowless, barred cages (the zoo’s “elephant barn”) until the exhibit reopens in May.
Among those in attendance to show support for Happy’s right to liberty and release to a sanctuary were Thai elephant advocate Lek Chailert, founder of the Save Elephant Foundation, and representatives from Change.org, which hosts an online petition for Happy signed by more than 1.1 million people.
“Today the world is watching as the fight for Happy’s freedom takes place in the courtroom,” said Tegan Gregory, senior animal campaigner at Change.org. “More than a million people from around the globe have added their voices to a Change.org petition calling for Happy’s release to a sanctuary. Happy’s supporters urge the Bronx Supreme Court to do what the Bronx Zoo refuses—allow a self-aware, social elephant to spend the rest of her life with her own kind.”
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. In early October, Mayor Bill de Blasio commented on Happy’s plight, telling WNYC “something doesn’t feel right” about keeping Happy in the Bronx Zoo.
Happy is a 48-year-old wild-born Asian elephant who was captured in Thailand and brought to the United States in the 1970s. She has been imprisoned at the Bronx Zoo since 1977 and has lived alone for the past 13 years. She 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 thanks to the NhRP’s litigation.
Justice Tuitt’s order from the bench at the conclusion of oral arguments indicated that “the status quo [of Happy’s situation] should be maintained” until she rules on the NhRP’s motion for preliminary injunction that would prevent the Bronx Zoo from moving her out of state until the case is resolved. Earlier this month, the NhRP won a temporary restraining order that prevented the Bronx Zoo from moving Happy out of state until today’s arguments. The NhRP sought the order after the Bronx Zoo refused to agree not to move Happy.
Because the arguments in support of the NhRP’s habeas corpus petition and various pending motions could not be completed today, Justice Tuitt scheduled a third court date for oral arguments in Happy’s case for Jan. 6th.
“Hopefully the end result will be Happy’s freedom,” said Stein.
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.