New York state appeals court rejects legal personhood for elephant

The highest court in New York state recently denied a petition by an animal rights organization to apply the legal right protecting humans against unlawful detention or imprisonment to Happy, a 48-year-old elephant housed at the Bronx Zoo. Finding otherwise, the court noted, would have “an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society.”

The June 14 ruling affirmed lower court decisions regarding Happy, that regardless of her species’ rich cognitive and emotional qualities, an elephant does not qualify as a “person” for the purposes of habeas corpus, a legal proceeding to determine whether a person is being illegally detained. Together, the AVMA, New York State Veterinary Medical Society, and American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges filed an amicus curiae—friend of the court—brief supporting the court’s ruling.

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)

“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,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote on behalf of the majority opinion.

Additionally, the court said, “Nonhuman animals are not, and never have been, considered ‘persons’ with a right to liberty under New York law.” Furthermore: “Granting legal personhood to a nonhuman animal in such a manner would have significant implications for the interactions of humans and animals in all facets of life, including risking the disruption of property rights, the agricultural industry (among others), and medical research efforts. Indeed, followed to its logical conclusion, such a determination would call into question the very premises underlying pet ownership, the use of service animals, and the enlistment of animals in other forms of work.”

The case was originally brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project against the Bronx Zoo’s director and the zoo’s operator, the Wildlife Conservation Society. The animal rights organization said in a statement on its website that the decision not to apply personhood to Happy makes the court appear “to be out of touch with the times.” Nevertheless, the Nonhuman Rights Project celebrated the dissent of two of the seven appeals court judges and the courts’ serious consideration of the petition.

“This is the first time the highest court of an English-speaking jurisdiction has heard a case demanding a legal right for a nonhuman animal,” the Nonhuman Rights Project said. “It will be far from the last.”

The Wildlife Conservation Society declined to comment for this article.

See the original story on the Happy the Elephant case.