Is Happy the elephant legally a person? A court will decide


The Nonhuman Rights Project also makes a practical argument: Happy is not, in fact, happy in captivity, the organisation says.

The group is seeking to move her from the zoo, where she has lived since 1977, to one of the country’s two elephant sanctuaries where, the advocates say, she would have more space and interaction with other elephants.

Is Happy a legal person?

Is Happy a legal person? Credit:AP

The zoo contends that Happy’s attorneys are discounting her wellbeing in service of winning a legal argument. Happy is treated compassionately, has contact with another elephant and has bonded with her zookeepers, the zoo says.

“At the Bronx Zoo, we are focused on what is best for Happy, not in general terms, but as an individual with a unique and distinct personality,” it said in a statement.


A win for Happy could also create a slippery slope, the zoo argues. Attorneys for the facility wrote in a court document that, if Happy is found to be a person, zoo animals across the country would have to be released or transferred to new facilities.

Happy’s case is part of a years-long fight by the Nonhuman Rights Project to gain legal recognition for the personhood of what it considers cognitively complex animals.

The group previously argued unsuccessfully that two caged chimpanzees were legally persons and should be moved to a sanctuary. Since launching Happy’s case in 2018, the organisation has lost in several lower-level courts.

Happy, roughly 50 years old, was born in the wild and named after a dwarf from the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Happy’s living space at the Bronx Zoo is separated by a fence from that of the zoo’s other elephant. The two elephants touch trunks, smell each other and communicate, Mary Dixon, a spokeswoman for the zoo, said on Wednesday.


Ken Manning, an attorney for the zoo, told the New York State Court of Appeals that Happy was not suffering nor being held wrongfully. He also argued that granting Happy a right to bodily liberty would amount to wrongfully putting her in the same category as people.

“There’s got to be an illegal detainment in order for the remedy to even apply at all,” he said. “And here there’s been no illegal detainment.”

The court also sought to determine the scope of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s argument. One of the judges asked an attorney for the group if she was seeking a ruling just for Happy or for a broader group of elephants.

“It would be disingenuous to not think that this would be precedent for another elephant,” the attorney, Monica Miller, responded. “It certainly wouldn’t automatically free other elephants.”

That strategy was echoed by Wise, who said in the interview that, if the court ruled in favour of Happy’s release, his organisation would ask other New York zoos to release their elephants to sanctuaries.

Nonhuman Rights Project president Steven Wise talks during the 2015 Animal Law Lecture Series in Sydney.

Nonhuman Rights Project president Steven Wise talks during the 2015 Animal Law Lecture Series in Sydney.Credit:Voiceless

The Nonhuman Rights Project filed a similar lawsuit in central California this month, demanding the release of three elephants at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo– part of the group’s stated attempts to “free as many animals from captivity as possible”.

The New York Court of Appeals is expected to rule in Happy’s case in the coming months.

The Washington Post


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