The New York Supreme Court has ruled that Happy, the 51-year-old Asian elephant at the Bronx Zoo, is not a legal entity. The ruling puts an end to a lawsuit that has left lawyers and the wider public pondering the rights our society should grant to highly intelligent animals. The New York State Court of Appeals ruled June 14, 5-2, that Happy had no right to physical liberty or protection from imprisonment.
Last year, the court decided to hear the case brought by the Non-Human Rights Project (NhRP), an animal welfare group in Florida. On May 18, the group petitioned the court to recognize Happy as a legal entity and to transfer her to an asylum. It was already the fourth court to hear the NhRP’s application, and the highest court in the United States to examine an animal rights case.
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The term “legal persons” refers to things to which rights and obligations can be assigned, just as private persons (“natural persons”). In various countries in the world, organizations as well as rivers and animals are recognized as legal entities. In the United States there is no separate legal classification for non-human animals, and so animals are seen as objects.
This week’s ruling confirms this position. According to the court, a habeas corpus – the right to be protected from unlawful capture – applies only to humans, despite the elephant’s intelligence. “While no one disputes the hypothetical capabilities of elephants, we reject the plaintiff’s request on the basis of the habeas corpus petition,” Court President Janet Deveore wrote in the majority opinion. “The habeas corpus is a procedural tool to ensure the freedom of unlawfully detained persons, not non-human animals.”
In a minority ruling, Judge Rowan Wilson challenged the view that habeas corpus applied only to humans. According to him, the use of habeas corpus “was heavily used in defense against the captivity of slaves, at a time when they were considered household goods by law.”
In a statement, the Nonhuman Rights Project hailed the “strong opposition” (oligarchic) as a “remarkable victory” in the fight for animal rights. At the same time, the group lamented that Happy was not taken to a shelter. “It is not just a setback for Happy, whose freedom is at stake in this case and who will be displayed as before at the Bronx Zoo in captivity. It is also a setback for all those who are committed to upholding and promoting the values and principles of law dear to our hearts – independence, freedom, equality and fairness. – and who want to avoid abuse in the legal system. Everyone should be able to invoke their fundamental rights, regardless of who they are. Bronx Zoo spokespersons declined to immediately respond to our request for comment.
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Stephen Wise, founder and chairman of NhRP, told National Geographic last year that Said is a “depressed elephant” and that “elephants have evolved to move, while Happy is standing there.” He gladly wants to move to a recognized sanctuary, where she will be staying with the other elephants in a more spacious and natural environment than her current 4,000 square foot surroundings, where she lives alone. “As social and intelligent animals, elephants need companionship,” he says, not “solitary confinement.”
Happy has lived at the Bronx Zoo, affiliated with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, for more than 40 years. In an email to the NhRP Champions in 2019, Zoo Director James Brieny wrote: “Happiness is not lost. She is very happy and is regularly evaluated by the people who know her well, including the vets who have treated her for years and caregivers who spend hours Every day with Happy.
The zoo also denies that Happy is alone, as she lives next to Patty, the other elephant in the zoo; Both animals are separated by a fence only. The zoo announced in 2020 that they had a “connection” with each other. The two elephants can see and touch each other occasionally from their separate enclosures. But attempts to house them in one container proved futile.
Neither animal felt comfortable being around the other, and both elephants showed different but distinct signs of stress, Brenny wrote in 2019. He later told a reporter that the elephants “were two sisters who didn’t want to share a room.”
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Although there are a few elephants living alone in packs in the United States, one of the reasons NhRP has filed a lawsuit on Happy’s behalf is that it helped scientists with their research on elephant cognition. In 2005, she became the first elephant to successfully pass the “mirror test,” a method for assessing animal intelligence. The researchers drew a white “X” on Happy’s forehead. When the animal saw itself in the mirror, it touched that spot on its forehead several times with its torso, revealing that it recognized itself in the mirror, something very few species cannot do.
This article was originally published in English at nationalgeographic.com