The judge said granting freedom to Happy would have ‘an enormous destabilising impact on modern society’.
New York’s top court has rejected an effort to free Happy the elephant from the Bronx Zoo, ruling in a closely watched case against an animal rights group that said she deserved some of the same rights as humans and should be freed.
The 5-2 decision by the state Court of Appeals on Tuesday affirms an earlier court decision and means Happy will not be released through a habeas corpus proceeding, which is a way for people to challenge illegal confinement.
The majority decision written by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said that “while no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion”, a writ of habeas corpus is intended to protect the liberty of human beings and does not apply to a nonhuman animal like Happy.
“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 destabilising impact on modern society,” read the decision. “It is not this Court’s role to make such a determination.”
Tuesday’s decision is a defeat for the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), which began asking New York courts four years ago to release Happy to one of two United States elephant sanctuaries. The Florida-based group had objected to what it considered Happy’s imprisonment in a 0.4 hectare (1 acre) enclosure at the zoo, segregated from other elephants.
The zoo and its supporters warned that a win for advocates at the NhRP could open the door to more legal actions on behalf of animals, including pets and other species in zoos.
The Bronx Zoo argued that Happy is neither illegally imprisoned nor a person, but a well-cared-for elephant “respected as the magnificent creature she is”.
The advocates at the NhRP argued that Happy is an autonomous, cognitively complex elephant worthy of the right reserved in law for “a person”.
Two judges, Rowan Wilson and Jenny Rivera, wrote separate, sharply worded dissents saying the fact that Happy is an animal does not prevent her from having legal rights. Rivera wrote that Happy is being held in “an environment that is unnatural to her and that does not allow her to live her life”.
“Her captivity is inherently unjust and inhumane. It is an affront to a civilized society, and every day she remains a captive — a spectacle for humans — we, too, are diminished,” Rivera wrote.
Happy was born in the wild in Asia in the early 1970s, then captured and brought as a one-year-old to the US. She arrived at the Bronx Zoo in 1977 with fellow elephant Grumpy, who was fatally injured in a 2002 confrontation with two other elephants.
The ruling from New York’s highest court cannot be appealed. The NhRP has failed to prevail in similar cases, including those involving a chimpanzee in upstate New York named Tommy.
Neither the NhRP nor the Bronx Zoo immediately replied to requests by Reuters for comment.