Why has a court decided not to grant Happy the elephant personhood?

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An animal rights group says that an elephant in the Bronx Zoo in New York is so intelligent she should be granted legal personhood, but a court has now issued a ruling saying otherwise


14 June 2022

Happy the elephant will remain at the Bronx Zoo for the foreseeable future

Robert K. Chin – Storefronts/Alamy


A female Asian elephant at the Bronx Zoo is not legally considered a person, New York’s court of appeals ruled today.

Happy has been embroiled in a years-long battle between animal rights activists and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo over the legality of her confinement. Here is everything you need to know about the case:

Who is Happy?

Happy has been a resident of the Bronx Zoo in New York for more than 45 years after being captured in the wild in Asia as a baby. She was relocated to the Bronx Zoo as a youngster and is now in her 50s.

She initially shared an enclosure with other elephants until their social differences proved unsafe. For the past ten years, Happy has been living in a roughly one-acre enclosure and has limited contact with the zoo’s other remaining pachyderms.

Why is there a court case about her?

The animal advocacy group Nonhuman Rights Project argue that highly intelligent animals like Happy should have some of the same legal rights as people.

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In 2018 the group asserted that Happy’s confinement at the zoo violates the legal principle of habeas corpus: the United States Constitutional right that prevents a person’s unlawful and indefinite imprisonment. They argued that the same right should be extended to Happy and that she should be moved to a sanctuary.

The Bronx Zoo says that Happy shows all signs of being a well-cared-for elephant and say that the animal welfare organization is using her as a pawn to advance their own agenda.

“They are not ‘freeing’ Happy as they purport, but arbitrarily demanding that she be uprooted from her home and transferred to another facility where they would prefer to see her live,” the zoo wrote in a statement last month. “Their concern is winning a legal argument, not what is best for Happy.”

What is the evidence behind the case?

The case for Happy’s personhood rests on her impressive cognitive abilities.

In 2005, Happy became the first elephant to pass the mirror self-recognition test where she observed her reflection and used her trunk to touch an X marked on her forehead. The ability is touted as an example of self-awareness, as only a few species including humans, apes and dolphins have passed the mirror test before.

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“While no one disputes the impressive capabilities of elephants, we reject petitioner’s arguments that it is entitled to seek the remedy of habeas corpus on Happy’s behalf,” the chief judge of the recent ruling, Janet DiFiore, wrote in a statement. “Habeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained, not nonhuman animals.”

The zoo also notes that Happy had bonded closely with her caretakers and requires specific medical care that would be challenging to maintain in a sanctuary setting.

Are there other animal personhood cases?

A 2014 decision by the Supreme Court of India extended some personhood rights to animals, including dignity and intrinsic value of life.

The following year, an Argentinian court ruled in favour of a habeas corpus case for a solitary orangutan named Sandra. Sandra was the first ape to be deemed a “non-human person” and was afforded some of the same legal rights as people, though the ruling was later overturned. She was then relocated to a sanctuary in the US.

What will happen next?

Happy will stay at the Bronx Zoo for the foreseeable future, but the debate about personhood rights for animals is not over. As researchers learn more about animals’ emotions and abilities, animal welfare organizations may be inclined to take on more habeas corpus cases for highly intelligent species.

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