Top New York Court Rules On Happy The Elephant

June 14, 2022
An elephant in a forest.

Because 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.

New York Court of Appeals chief judge Janet DiFiore in a majority opinion ruling that an Asian elephant residing at the Bronx Zoo is not a person.

Why It Matters: The case, brought by an animal-advocacy organization called the Nonhuman Rights Group, "was the first time the highest court in any English-speaking jurisdiction heard such a case brought on behalf of a nonhuman animal" (Axios). This 5-2 decision that Happy is not a person means she must stay at the Bronx Zoo rather than be transferred to an elephant sanctuary, but also reflects the likelihood of continued debate on the rights of highly intelligent animals.

  • The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo, responded to the suit by saying that Happy is "well cared for by professionals with decades of experience and with whom she is strongly bonded."
  • Happy has been at the Bronx Zoo for more than 40 years. In 2006, the Bronx Zoo decided to stop taking in new elephants.

Excerpt from the majority decision, written by Judge DiFiore: "A determination that Happy, an elephant, may invoke habeas corpus to challenge her confinement at the Bronx Zoo—a confinement both authorized and, by all indications, compliant with state and federal statutory law and regulations—would have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society … As the Appellate Court of Connecticut cautioned in dismissing similar litigation by petitioner in that state, '[n]ot only would this case require us to recognize elephants as 'persons' for purposes of habeas corpus, this recognition essentially would require us to upend this state's legal system to allow highly intelligent, if not all, nonhuman animals the right to bring suit in a court of law' (R.W. Commerford and Sons, Inc. 192 Conn App at 44)." (Found HERE on page 12.)

Excerpt from one of the dissenting opinions, written by Judge Rowan Wilson: "… we should recognize Happy's right to petition for her liberty not just because she is a wild animal who is not meant to be caged and displayed, but because the rights we confer on others define who we are as a society … When the majority answers, 'No, animals cannot have rights,' I worry for that animal, but I worry even more greatly about how that answer denies and denigrates the human capacity for understanding, empathy and compassion." (Found HERE on page 70.)

Click HERE for the State of New York Court Of Appeals' full opinion

Click HERE for more on habeas corpus (Cornell Law School)

Happy the Elephant Isn't a Person, Top New York Court Rules (The New York Times)

Bronx Zoo elephant named Happy isn't a person, court rules (Associated Press)

Happy the Elephant Isn't a Legal Person, New York's Highest Court Rules (The Wall Street Journal)

by Jenna Lee,