An Asian elephant named Happy that has been at the Bronx Zoo for more than 40 years will remain there after New York’s highest court ruled on Tuesday that she is not a person, in a legal sense, and therefore not entitled to a fundamental human right.
By a 5-to-2 vote, the Court of Appeals rejected an animal-advocacy organization’s argument that Happy was being illegally detained at the zoo and should be transferred to a more natural environment.
The dispute hinged on whether the cornerstone legal principle of habeas corpus — which people assert to protect their bodily liberty and to contest illegal confinement — should be extended to autonomous, cognitively complex animals like elephants. No, the court said.
“While no one disputes the impressive capabilities of elephants, we reject petitioner’s arguments that it is entitled to seek the remedy of habeas corpus on Happy’s behalf,” Janet DiFiore, the chief judge, wrote. “Habeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained, not nonhuman animals.”
But in a lengthy dissent, Judge Rowan D. Wilson said the court had a duty “to 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.”
Judge Jenny Rivera, in a separate dissent, wrote that Happy was being “held in an environment that is unnatural to her and that does not allow her to live her life as she was meant to: as a self-determinative, autonomous elephant in the wild.”
The ruling ended what appears to be the first case of its kind in the English-speaking world to reach so high a court. And while it keeps Happy where she is, the outcome is unlikely to quell the debate over whether highly intelligent animals should be viewed as something other than things or property.
The case was brought by the Nonhuman Rights Group, an animal-advocacy organization, as part of a long-running legal push to free captive animals. Last month, even as Happy’s fate hung in the balance, the group asserted a habeas claim seeking to have three elephants removed from a Fresno, Calif., zoo.
In a statement on Tuesday, the group focused on the dissenting opinions, saying they offered “tremendous hope for a future where elephants no longer suffer as Happy has and where nonhuman rights are protected alongside human rights.”
The group had sought to have Happy moved from the Bronx Zoo, which it called a “prison” for her, to one of two vast elephant sanctuaries, which it described as more natural settings that would make Happy’s life happier.
“She’s a depressed, screwed-up elephant,” Steven Wise, the group’s founder, said in an interview before the ruling was announced.
On the other side was the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the zoo and flatly rejected the group’s assertions about Happy’s Bronx existence. She is “well cared for by professionals with decades of experience and with whom she is strongly bonded,” the society said in a statement before the ruling, adding that the case amounted to “blatant exploitation.”
The society did not respond to a request for a comment on Tuesday.
The subject of the argument was visible on a cool, clear day in May from a monorail trolley rolling through the zoo’s Wild Asia section. She and another Asian elephant, Patty, moved about slowly, separated by a fence in the roughly two-acre, tree-lined enclosure they share, with logs scattered around and a pool nearby.
“Both of our elephants look great,” said a tour guide, offering an assessment that could be hard for the average person to contradict. Happy wandered across her grassy patch in the direction of Patty, ears, trunk and tail waving in morning sun. “They get a lot of attention,” the guide said.
Elephants are extremely social by nature, roaming in herds and communicating with one another in everything from low-frequency rumbles to the slight angling of their bodies. They have been observed in various mourning behaviors when one of their number dies.
The Bronx Zoo acquired her and another of the seven, Grumpy, also a female, in 1977. The two lived initially with an older female elephant, Tus, in the Elephant House (not in the Wild Asia section where Happy is now kept).
Tus, Happy and Grumpy were trained to do tricks, give rides to children and perform at “Elephant Weekends,” wearing costumes made by an edgy downtown performance artist and “playing” tug of war with firefighters and college football players. (The elephants usually won.)
Eventually, they were moved to Wild Asia, as zoos across the country retooled or abandoned their elephant exhibits, partly in response to a growing animal-rights movement. Tus died in 2002. A few months later, Patty and a second elephant, Maxine, attacked Grumpy, fatally wounding her. Happy could no longer be kept with them.
In 2006, a young female elephant, Sammy, was brought in to be Happy’s new companion, but she died soon after arriving. The zoo decided against adding any more elephants, focusing instead on helping endangered members of the species in the wild.
That left Happy alone on one side of a fence, with Patty — and, until she died several years ago, Maxine — on the other. The barrier notwithstanding, zoo officials say Happy is not isolated and that she and Patty touch trunks, smell each other and communicate.
Eugene M. Fahey, a judge on the court at the time, joined his colleagues in rejecting the chimp case. But in a concurring opinion, he said the matter presented “a deep dilemma of ethics and policy that demands our attention.”
“The issue of whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching,” he wrote.
“Ultimately” he added, “we will not be able to ignore it.”
To Mr. Wise, Judge Fahey’s opinion offered a glimmer of hope. With appeals in the chimp case exhausted, he turned to Happy, who had distinguished herself as especially cognitively advanced even for a species known for intelligence.
In 2005, she passed a mirror self-recognition test, touching an X marked on her head with her trunk while looking in a mirror — the first elephant to show such a degree of self-awareness (only human infants, apes and dolphins had done it before).
In February 2020, a trial court judge rejected a habeas petition filed on Happy’s behalf by Mr. Wise’s group. The judge, Justice Alison Tuitt of Bronx State Supreme Court, said she was bound by legal precedent and had come to her conclusion “regrettably.”
“This court agrees that Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property,” she wrote.
An appellate court affirmed the lower court ruling, setting the stage for a hearing last month before the seven-judge Court of Appeals.
The judges focused at the hearing on how autonomy is defined for animals; the meaning of bodily liberty in this instance; and the potentially larger effects of a ruling that would move Happy from the zoo.
Quizzing Monica Miller, the lawyer representing the Nonhuman Rights Project, Judge Rivera zeroed in on the ramifications for pet owners.
“Does that mean I couldn’t keep a dog?” she asked. “I mean, dogs can memorize words.”
No, Ms. Miller answered, the group’s arguments did not apply to dogs: “We don’t have the evidence about dogs that we have about elephants right now.”
The conservation society’s primary argument was that Happy was not being detained illegally, but its lawyer, Kenneth Manning, also raised the specter of humans losing control over animals of all kinds if the court were to rule in favor of Mr. Wise’s group.
“I wouldn’t call this a ripple, Your Honor,” he said to Judge Rivera.
In her opinion, Judge DiFiore competed. A decision in favor of Mr. Wise’s group, she wrote, “would have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society.”
Judge Fahey retired from the court last year and was not part of the deliberations. But he voted for the court to take the case before stepping down, and in an interview before the decision was announced, he said it was an important step regardless of the outcome.
“The real point is whether they are beings with a complex sense of their own selves,” he said of elephants and other highly intelligent animals like chimps. There was, he said, “an enormous amount of evidence” supporting that argument and “not one scintilla of proof” contradicting it.
He noted that while a dictionary may define “person” one way, the word’s meaning under the law has changed over time. He noted that corporations are now treated as people in certain situations.
Judge Fahey also said that advances in technology — those involving artificial intelligence, for instance — made questions about personhood even more critical to address.
“The nature of humanity and the nature of intelligence are going to change as science changes,” he said. “And if we don’t confront how we define these things now, we are not going to have anything to build on when those changes come.”