Jun 14, 2022 - Politics & Policy

New York court rules Happy the elephant is not a person

Patty the elephant

Patty, an Asian elephant who lived with the Bronx Zoo's other remaining elephant Happy until they were separated, is seen in October 2019. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Happy, an Asian elephant that has lived in the Bronx Zoo for more than 40 years, will remain there after New York state's highest court ruled Tuesday that she isn't a person, in a legal sense, and therefore wasn't being illegally detained.

Why it matters: It was the first time the highest court in any English-speaking jurisdiction heard such a case brought on behalf of a nonhuman animal.

  • The Nonhuman Rights Project, a nonprofit focused on animal rights, argued that the right to habeas corpus — which protects against illegal detention — should be extended to emotionally complex animals.
  • The Nonhuman Rights Project argued that Happy was being illegally detained by the Bronx Zoo and ought to be transferred to an elephant sanctuary.

The big picture: In a 5-2 decision, the New York Court of Appeals rejected the Nonhuman Rights Project's argument.

  • "The writ of habeas corpus is intended to protect the liberty right of human beings to be free of unlawful confinement, it has no applicability to Happy, a nonhuman animal who is not a 'person' subjected to illegal detention," Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote in the court's ruling.
  • "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."

What they're saying: "She's a depressed, screwed-up elephant," Steven Wise, the Nonhuman Rights Project's founder, told the New York Times in an interview ahead of the ruling's announcement.

  • The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo said in a statement that Happy is "well cared for by professionals with decades of experience and with whom she is strongly bonded," per the Times.
Go deeper