Happy the elephant is latest test case for animal rights group

An animal rights organization recently petitioned the New York State Court of Appeals to rule that Happy, a 48-year-old elephant, be considered a “person” for purposes of habeas corpus, which is a legal proceeding to determine if people have been unlawfully imprisoned or had their liberty unlawfully restrained.

The allegation is that the elephant’s rights are being violated by the elephant being confined at the Bronx Zoo, and the animal rights organization’s desire is to use the habeas corpus proceedings to obtain her release to a larger animal sanctuary. The lower courts have ruled that an elephant is not a “person” for these purposes.

Happy (left) and her companion Patty
Happy (left) and her companion Patty, at the Bronx Zoo, which the Nonhuman Rights Project claims has unlawfully denied the elephant of her liberty. (Courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society)

Oral argument before New York’s highest appellate court was held on May 18. The case was originally brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project against the zoo director and its operator, the Wildlife Conservation Society, contending that the elephant is being unlawfully confined at the zoo.

Habeas corpus is a fundamental right within common law and the U.S. Constitution that protects a person from wrongful or indefinite imprisonment. The Nonhuman Rights Project’s strategy is to broaden the definition of “person” to include certain highly sentient animals, such as chimpanzees and elephants.

As part of its petition for Happy, the animal rights organization submitted affidavits of five experts on elephant cognition, stating elephants share many cognitive abilities with humans, including self-awareness, empathy, awareness of death, and intentional communication.

Both the trial court and the midlevel court of appeals previously dismissed the petition, holding that use of the legal writ of habeas corpus is limited to human beings, as previously determined in a prior appellate ruling involving similar habeas corpus petitions by the Nonhuman Rights Project on behalf of two captive chimpanzees, Tommy and Kiko.

The appellate court in those cases found no legal support or legal precedent for concluding that the humanlike characteristics of Tommy or Kiko render them persons for the purposes of habeas corpus. Moreover, decisions about whether and how to incorporate nonhuman animals into legal constructs designed for humans is a matter better suited for the legislature, the court said.

In its appeal for Happy, the Nonhuman Rights Project countered that habeas corpus is a creation of common law, not statute. “Thus, whether an individual is a ‘person’ who may invoke the protections of habeas corpus is a substantive common law question for this Court to decide, not the legislature.”

Several organizations filed amicus briefs supporting the position that it is not appropriate to afford animals the legal status of person, including a joint brief from the AVMA, New York State Veterinary Medical Society, and American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges.

“These organizations have a substantial interest in ensuring that New York laws promote sound animal ownership and welfare policies through clearly defined rights and responsibilities,” the brief states. “Providing animals with the same personhood status recognized in humans, including for the purposes of a writ of habeas corpus, is contrary to this goal.

“Amici urge the Court to affirm that an animal is legally the property of its owners, recognizing that animals are cherished and protected by the laws of this State in ways different from inanimate ‘things’ and that advance animal welfare.”

It is not known when the appellate court will rule on the habeas petition.