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Happy the Elephant Denied Personhood, Will Stay in Bronx Zoo (2)

June 14, 2022, 1:40 PMUpdated: June 14, 2022, 3:59 PM

Happy the elephant will remain in the Bronx Zoo after New York’s highest court ruled in a divided decision Tuesday that she isn’t entitled to legal personhood and a right to bodily liberty.

The ruling was a loss for the Nonhuman Rights Project, which first filed a petition for common law writ of habeas corpus demanding a court recognize Happy’s legal personhood in 2018.

Happy is an “extraordinarily intelligent and autonomous being who possesses advanced analytic abilities akin to human beings,” the group told New York Court of Appeals, and she has been living on a “solitary and lonely Bronx Zoo acre for more than four decades.”

The writ of habeas corpus “is intended to protect the liberty right of human beings to be free of unlawful confinement,” the court said, so “it has no applicability to Happy, a nonhuman animal who is not a ‘person’ subjected to illegal detention.”

“Thus, while no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion, the courts below properly granted the motion to dismiss the petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and we therefore affirm,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote for the 5-2 majority.

Judge Jenny Rivera wrote in dissent that Happy’s captivity is “inherently unjust and inhumane.”

“It is an affront to a civilized society, and every day she remains a captive — a spectacle for humans — we, too, are diminished,” Rivera wrote.

Defining Personhood

The trial court said precedent bound it to a finding that nonhuman animals are not persons because “they cannot bear duties, they are not human, and according rights to nonhuman animals is an issue better left to the legislature.”

But “personhood is not synonymous with being human,” the group argued, and it doesn’t “require the capacity to bear duties.”

The group received backing from a group of 27 law professors who told the court that “many legal persons lack legal duties.”

Animals “are already legal persons because they have legal rights,” the attorneys argued, citing anti-cruelty laws and the consideration of animals during divorce proceedings. In the alternative, animals should be considered legal persons because they have interests in liberty and equality that the common law protects, the attorneys said.

The Bronx Zoo and Wildlife Conservation Society told the court that Happy is well cared for, and that the Nonhuman Rights Project is using Happy to “impose its own world view that certain, or perhaps all animals should not be cared for in zoos.”

‘Deleterious Effects’

Whether habeas corpus applies to nonhuman animals is an issue “that merits careful consideration of all concerns by the elected officials of the state,” the zoo and society argued.

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums and individual zoos wrote in support that expanding habeas relief to animals “would have extraordinarily deleterious effects.” The writ could be used not only against zoos and aquariums in the state, but also against “any pet owner, beekeeper, dairy farmer, or myriad others,” according to the filing.

Still, no court has held the writ applicable to a nonhuman animal, DiFiore wrote, and nothing in precedent supports the suggestion it should be applicable to nonhuman animals.

The writ “protects the right to liberty of humans because they are humans with certain fundamental liberty rights recognized by law,” according to the chief judge. She was joined by Judges Michael J. Garcia, Madeline Singas, Anthony Cannataro, and Shirley Troutman.

It’s irrelevant that there’s no precedent for recognizing a nonhuman animal’s right to habeas relief because “novel questions merely present opportunities to develop the law,” Judge Rowan D. Wilson wrote in dissent.

Wilson wrote that he does not “place nonhuman animals like Happy on equal footing with humans.” But if courts recognize that corporations can have constitutional rights, then the law can recognize “an autonomous animal’s right to judicial consideration of their claim to be released from an unjust captivity.”

The Nonhuman Rights Project said in a statement Tuesday that the majority “appears to be out of touch with the times and has demonstrated a deep misunderstanding of what Happy’s case is about.”

The group will continue its campaign for her release while it considers its legal options and next steps, it said. The dissents and the fact that the court considered the case gives “tremendous hope for a future where elephants no longer suffer as Happy has and where nonhuman rights are protected alongside human rights,” the group said.

Phillips Lytle LLP represented the Bronx Zoo and Wildlife Conservation Society. Elizabeth Stein of New Hyde Park, NY, and Monica Miller of the American Humanist Association represented the Nonhuman Rights Project Inc.

The case is Matter of Nonhuman Rights Project, N.Y., No. APL-2021-00087, 6/14/22.

(Adds comment from Nonhuman Rights Project beginning in 19th paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Maya Earls in Washington at mearls@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com; Brian Flood at bflood@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com